eastersunday – a poem a sermon before lent sneaks up on us again

from Norwich Cathedral

from Norwich Cathedral

easter sunday – a sermon a poem
By Daniel P. Richards

we walk when we can to the tomb
knowing that life is the way we always suspected

our hope in pools beneath the executioner’s wood
our grief has turned numb and we do what we probably should

take care of the details

so we mix our spices and oils
and go as we have always gone

it was (according to luke) the traditional way
of preparing bodies after the sabbath day

the state (it is said) always wins in the end
so here we go again

the state of things are as they have always been
there is war somewhere and losses here at home

justified killings and innocent people sacrificed to a greater good
we live lives of collateral damage

the environment ruined for a comfortable drive to work
someone somewhere is working her 1000th day in a row

so that i can have affordable tennis shoes or cheap lettuce
a child this morning is watching television alone (again)

what can we do?

we try to take care of the details
and sit is the reality that consumes us

the pragmatic pessimism that sighs
and says once again this is the way things are

we go to war because we are supposed to
when someone wrongs us we have to hit them back

we have to have these betternewerbigger weapons or suv’s
or borders or vaccinations to keep danger at bay

but it doesn’t work does it?
we load the gun and the child finds it

we buy organic and still get cancer
we love our children and they walk away

eastersunday

eastersunday is the ultimate proof
that the way things are is an illusion

the grief that numbs us is confused
by the emptiness of the tomb

and the way things are is underthrown
by a god who works in death to do the new

the thing we did not expect and cannot explain
the moment of death has become the moment of life

god meets us where we felt most abandoned
crying out my god my god why have you forsaken me?

the answer did not come when we wanted it
(when all the world would see

and they would know that we were right
that we were on the winning team)

but rather in whispers and bleached clothes to some women
whom not even peter and john quite believed

and yet here we are still scratching our heads
and asking exactly what it means

i don’t know
but i hope towards this

that god is here with us

the god that didn’t fix the way things are
didn’t soften the religious leaders hearts or overthrow rome

that didn’t go searching in the dark sabbath for revenge
or mount up an army to go after (them)

but that god the creator comes quietly after the storm
and whispers tabitha cum to the little girl

and takes us by the hand
leads us out into a new light

maybe too bright or too dim to quite see everything
and the soldiers are still standing guard at the comer

but somehow it all seems new

and the people around us are no longer enemies or even strangers (now)
but they wear the smile of family and friend

someone breaks a fresh loaf of bread and says (this)
and we take it and become

someone gets out the bottle of wine and says (remember)
and we do

we remember who we are gathered in this quiet room
the unsuspected and somewhat surprised family of god

no god hasn’t made us perfect
nor did we win

but god told us even in the worst of what we could do
that we are still god’s own and loved (beloved)

and god tell us now in this festal laugh
that the way things are is new

the reign the household jesus proclaimed exists
and always has

the whole world over our family is waking up
and slowly getting it as though at dawn

the light of a new day shines and all are one

how then do we live in our cheap tennis shoes
and believe the woman who sewed them is our sister?

that the people in the mosque are redeemed somehow
and that our soldiers are more than killing machines?

i don’t know

but i get up every morning and i sit
alone in a blue room with a candle and an icon

and i remember who i am
and then when i go to the store

i think about who else has touched these things
and i remember that they are loved too

and that they deserve what i do
and instead they get the way things are

so i put my hands into the clay of my tiny corner of the world
and i get to work building this new jerusalem

where the way things are is the way i know them to be
soaked in the light of this eastersunday morning

a world made new and being made new by christ (yes)
and by the christ in us (yes)

today we will baptize children
and we will say with them the words we say about who we are

let us not say them only but remember them in our clay
and not come to this table lulled to sleep by the way things appear to be

but let us come to this table awake to the new day
hands dirty and ready to work

let us hand them a world with fewer crosses and more empty tombs
with more justice and a greater peace

and when jesus comes again in glory
he’ll find a house he recognizes

and their familiar faces
already getting out the bread and wine

for the greatest party ever thrown
and everyone will be welcome

daniel p. richards

Spas_vsederzhitel_sinay

Addicted to the Apple – Theology as Addiction Treatment

Okay, so I am not the first person to notice this, but the Apple on my Mac has a bite taken out of it.  This little observation always haunts me a little bit whenever I see it, which is often.  I write on a Macbook, text and talk on a iPhone.  I did sell my iPod, iPad mini 2, and the older Mac at home is a half-frozen antiquity from 2008.  I am addicted.

Okay, so I don’t really mean addicted, nor am I really talking about my preference for an operating system on my computer.  I am addicted to this world, the world of the apple.  The world of the knowledge of good and evil, post-garden of eden, clothing world.  I am an addict to the world of sin.  And I bet you are too, even if you use a PC or Chromebook or nothing.  We are addicted.

I was reminded of my state by a conversation with a recovery rockstar locally, Thomas Gilbert.  He was talking about what makes effective recovery and laying the groundwork for a sober house and retreat center here in Traverse City.  I am all about people in recovery.  They are models of new creation living in the most brutal and honest way.

We Christians should be major supporters of recovery because of what it is, what it says, and what it means.  As sober Christians we are really passive about love for people in recovery generally.   As an Episcopal church, we host AA and have treatment available for clergy, but I am talking about local Christians understanding and rejoicing and celebrating recovery as a model of embracing new life.

The Navy Seals have a saying, Embrace the Suck.  I love that saying because it means to accept the suffering of this moment in order to do your job and do it well.  It is going to suck, and if you want to get where you want to go, you are going to have to embrace it.  I want the solitude of desert solitude and survive, so I carry water.  In recovery, I understand that we have to embrace the suck of life.  We, all of us human beings, embrace opiation, medication, numbing agents, until we are no more fully alive.  We avoid real life.

This is the essence of addiction as I understand it.  Our minds become shaped, rutted, preset to the addicted substance instead of real life.  We prefer the addiction object instead of life and loved ones and even food and water.  These objects usually have a numbing effect, an opiate of some sort.  We, of course, prefer to be numb rather than deal with the world.  Being sober means embracing the suck of real life.  It is hard and will be if we want to get where we want to go.

Have you ever heard someone who was so addicted to their beliefs that they no longer embraced real life?  The NRA member who cannot deal with the realities of handgun deaths of children, or rich people who cannot look long at poverty?  I think the allegation that faith is an opiate is fair when our faith is a way of avoiding the world, of numbing ourselves to reality.  That does not mean that ecstatic realities are not real, but rather that they can lead toward or away from real life, just like a glass of wine can lubricate conversation and allow people to be real or be a numbing agent that avoids the difficulties of conversation.

Doing theology is difficult, but it is one of the ways that we get a new mind, that we learn to think as a mature engaged human beings.  I need a new mind.  Yes, Jesus can just give me one, but that is not the way God always works.  We are given freedom and then have to learn to live in freedom and responsibility.  We have to metanoia, or repent, to get a new mind in Christ Jesus. The word metanoia is the Greek word for repent, and it means to have a new way of knowing, a larger mind, a more mature understanding or view.  Learning theology, alongside learning to concentrate, contemplate, and meditate, alongside learning to submit and pray are the practices of getting a new mind.  All of these practices are rooted in and soaked by the Bible and especially the life and teachings of Jesus.

When we get a new mind, the questions we ask change as well as the answers we have.  Can we ever go back to not knowing that we are naked?  Is it possible to go back to a state of purity?  I don’t think so.  The addicts we have, our recovery heroes, are always going to have addictions, just like us.  We should celebrate their work and their successes, and we should be patient when they fall off the wagon and return to the object of their addictions; after all, who could understand that better than us?  We should embrace their suck and embrace them as they wrestle with real lives and the complications and convictions of their lives under the apple.  After all, they are us.

The faith and love of the Episcopal Church will be tested by our ability to love the Rt. Rev. Heather Cook and hold her close and visit her while being honest about the atrocity and sin and brokenness of her addiction.  Can we let her be human and still love her, honor her, uphold her dignity, while admitting the depths and realities of her sin?  Can we do that while honoring and upholding and embracing the dignity of her victim, a family man who was bicycling through his own complicated and beautiful life? Can we hold the contradictions and complications of this story and not neglect the human being involved?  Can we embrace the suck here?

This is the test we face right now, or at least one of them.  I know that if I am going to embrace the suck of real life and work for an even more real life of Christ and the Rule of God, where every human being is loved by God and has justice and peace and where sins are forgiven and justice done, I am going to need a new mind.

So I lean into the Daily Office, and I sit in meditation and prayer, and I read theology, even though none of these is easy today.  I need a new mind, and a community that loves me, and I need the close and constant work of the Holy Spirit breathing in me, speaking the Word and his Way into being in me, and I need the God of all creation who is bringing the whole back one day.

Until then, I love you even when it sucks, because Christ embraced the manger and the cross, and on my way out of the Garden still picking my teeth, God made me something to wear, and the Breath that moved over the waters of Creation still move and even darkness is not dark to God.

Theology as Poetry: a brief introduction and beginning

Theology as poetry.

“The church could use more pastors who care about poetry,” Rita Dove said to me at a dinner for the University of Arizona Poetry House back in 2003.  My response was that “our thinking about God could use more poetry and less prose.”  It was one of those moments when I was articulate at the right moment, but as I began to really work out what that could mean over the last twelve years, I have begun to believe I should be writing about it.  This should probably be in a book, but here goes.

Poetry as a word goes back to the Greek word ποίησις which means “to make.” It seems anathema to many in the field of theology that we might make theology.  It is a received thing, right?  Revelation is the only way to know God?  As I have read online time and time again, the questions in theology have right and wrong answers, usually followed by a single verse or two almost always completely out of context.  The problem with this is that theology is assumed to be this spreadsheet of data about God revealed in the Bible that we can check off like the bills I send in every month.  Believe in Trinity as coequal and coeternal? Check.  Traverse City Light and Power paid? Check.

Theology is always contextual and revealed.  It is like the balance in poetry between content and form.  Shakespeare is the master of the sonnet.  Fourteen lines of rhymed iambic pentameter in one of two major patterns of rhyme scheme and meaning.  The sonnet has particular rules which you can find almost anywhere, and which are so well known they actually still teach it in high school.  (If they don’t I may lose faith in the Western World.)  But Shakespeare is always pushing and pulling on those rules.  He adds a different stress pattern in to emphasize different words or ideas, uses near rhyme and line breaks to pull the reader along.  He presses the romantic ideal with struggles of constancy and betrayal.  The content pushes on the form creating a dynamic tension.  There is no pure sonnet that is really great that I can think of.

So what role does the form play in writing?  It is the framework of meaning and expectation that guides the writer and also sets up the rules that the reader can expect and expect the writer to work within and against to create that dynamic tension.  In theology the revelation can serve as our form, or some portion of Scripture.  The writer then sets out to place content and revelation in a dynamic tension that results in something far more interesting than a book of forms.

The classical writers know this tension.  It is why we still read Calvin even if we are not Calvinists.  Calvin’s actual work, rather than the blather others have written about him, puts ideas and situations into a context that pushes against his accepted rules.  Often he works himself into a blind corner, where the only thing to do is point to the cup-de-sac and say, Blessed be God, Amen.  Read the Institutes of Religion as an adult and you will see poetry in the making.  But like Shakespeare, Calvin often gets read too early and then later we skip Calvin and read commentaries.

The same thing is true of Aquinas and Richard Hooker.  We read these great thinkers as they tinker and push and pull within accepted forms.  Aquinas was working through theology with Aristotle as a base rather than Plato, which is fascinating to read as an adult thinker.  How do you move the basic categories of thinking about accepted forms of faith and revelation without destroying those forms?  It is like Billy Collins bringing his wry humor and relaxed, informal tone to the forms of poetry.  Hooker was arguing for the ability to trust a redeemed reason against the more extreme Puritanical forces on the fringes of Anglicanism, who saw the total depravity as unredeemed and therefore untrustworthy.  He argues from within an Anglican reformed tradition but pushes against the form to the extent that he created whole new spaces within our theology of church.

Poetry is about creating spaces or experiences.  In the mid-1990’s I walked into a terrarium garden outside the public library in Glendale, Arizona.  The area around the library was a busy suburban intersection with heavy traffic and multiple use playgrounds and ballfields nearby, but all of the chaos and noise of the area disappeared as I stepped down into a micro-environment that put me in the Sonoran Desert for maybe a dozen steps.  It was a revelatory moment when I began to conceive of the job of communication as a poet as one of creating spaces to enter rather than simply telling an audience about something.  The hope is to create a space to enter and explore.

A poetic theology is about creating the space to experience the presence of God and to explore what that may mean with a partner rather than simply to hear what God is like.  It is generally accepted in theology that all of our understanding of God is analogical.  We have to talk about what God is “like” because we cannot speak directly of God outside of sense experience, because God is Spirit.  To understand that for a moment, it is not to say that God is only spiritually understood or non-existent, but rather that we only experience God through the tools we have.  I would argue against modernity that we have spiritual understanding, but that spiritual understanding still has to be communicated in the experiential language, therefore language of analogy, our experience of God’s presence is like our experience of light or darkness.

I would go farther to say that most of us have the kind of direct experiences of God that we read and know in the Bible, but that we simply do not have the categories to experience them.  But in any case the language we have ends up being analogical, metaphorical, and referential to experience.  But it is a dull thing to simply be told about something in abstractions.

At the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, I once listened to a lecture on the Psalms with a friend by a professor who had co-written a book on the subject that was quite good.  The lecture though was abysmal.  It was a theology on tap event, like ones I had hosted in bars working with the Episcopal Diocese of California and the Archdiocese of San Francisco, so it was expected to be engaging and fun.   It was painful though, and it was only after the first hour of lecture that I realized the lecturer was talking all about the Psalms without using any metaphors!  When he got to the chapter of the book written by his co-writer, The Psalms a Mirror of the Soul, he added like, so it was only a simile in the end.  I walked out at that point.

Our speech about God is always analogical, so it becomes necessary to speak in metaphors, and every metaphor is wrong.  By definition a metaphor is always using an unalike thing to show what another thing is like.  Love is an oven.  Of course, love is not an oven, so the metaphor is useful and beautiful and interesting and also a lie.  This is what makes it work.  And our theology is always like that.  Our metaphors for God and our experience of God is always a lie, but can our lies also be truthful and interesting and beautiful?  And can we speak about God honestly admitting along the way that we are always not speaking directly?  There is a wonderful book by the Islamic scholar Michael Sells called Mystical Languages of Unsaying that I bought just for the title and only later got the wisdom of how wonderful it is.

Our language can never give someone a direct understanding of our experience of God.  Perhaps this explains the prohibition against graven images.  It is always easy to take the explanation for the important thing.  Modern theology made this mistake again and again, saying that acceptance of beliefs, by which we meant statements about God, was salvific. We still make this mistake today when we ask someone if they believe some particular thing, usually a statement.  The problem is that there are beliefs that define us as Christians as opposed to Unitarians or Muslims.  There are statements that sort of set the rails against which we insist you not lean too much because of the implications of false interpretations.  Love may be compared to an oven, but it is not rape or murder.

So we again run into forms and content.  There is a point, say fifteen lines, when you are no longer writing a sonnet.  It may still be a poem, but it isn’t a sonnet.  This is important in our theological making.  We have to recognize that if we are to make something that is truly Christian,  there are rules to the making.  This is hard for Baby Boomer to accept.  We have whole generations who just want to make up whatever rules they want and have the rest of us just agree because you “believe” in those rules.  The source of authority becomes the self, and the self as we have seen is fickle.  There is no orthodoxy except human rights, civil rights, and the autonomy of the individual.

Poetry has rules to each form.  They define the game, and if you want to be a part of that particular game, you have to play by those rules.  The interesting question is what makes Christian thought Christian?  Can I reject substitutionary atonement and still be a Christian?

What is the form that defines Christianity?

Psalms are Hebrew poetry, and they are written within a framework of Hebrew thought that is deeply analogical, describing the world and emotion in beautiful images from the natural world.  They make meaning by repetition and change.  We looked at Psalm 96 recently in a class at Grace, and as we followed the writer through the repetitions new meanings began to unfold.  The writer feels unstable because of assaults by enemies who have almost overcome him or her, but the writer trusts that God is stable, secure, like a fortress on a rock.  But the writer seems when you follow the poem to be tempted to reach out for stability by stealing or robbery, but knows that God is just and this would violate that justice, so he encourages his soul to trust God and not money for security.  I had not caught any of that just reading the poem in prayer and worship for these last forty years.  But there it was beautifully born out in repetition and change line to line, verse to verse.

That repetition defines Hebrew poetry and thought.  If you want to understand Hebrew thought and poetry you have to follow out those repetitions.  I am constantly surprised that people do not know the basics of theology or how they work.  So many Christian writers make fundamental mistakes that violate the one rule that would seem to be agreeable to all of our tens of thousands of denominations: Jesus of Nazareth reveals and exegetes God for us.  If Jesus says something about God then that would seem to be unquestionable to Christian writers, yet I have read time and time again as I have gone looking for basic books on theology for my congregation that emphasize the wrath of God against all humanity, and even God’s unforgiveness without sacrifice.  These statements come from derivative theology, thoughts about God derived from other thoughts about the Bible.  They are not really supportable from Scripture when you begin with Jesus.

But again we have walked into a bind.  We use the Bible as a whole to understand Jesus, but like Calvin we end up reading about Jesus rather than reading Jesus.  Jesus speaks analogically often.  He uses metaphor, parable, and analogy so much so that it defines his teachings.  If we are unwilling to experience and explore his teachings like rooms we enter rather than direct statements, we will completely miss the experience he is offering us of his Abba.

This analogy is my favorite, so much that I probably overdo the comparison because of my enthusiasm for my own experience of being both son and father.  But Jesus is not using the analogy of Abba for God indiscriminately; he emphasizes God’s rule and compassion, desire for his children and to provide for them.  Yet often I have used and heard this analogy used to talk about God’s wrath and limits.  To follow Jesus on this is to follow his repetitions around the image of God as Abba.  Jesus tells us repeatedly to be like God, mature, complete in our compassion, as God is.

We are also to be like God in our creativity.  We are makers in creation.  We get to make new things.  As we engage theology as poetry we get to make new connections and new analogies, new rooms of meaning in the mansions of the church’s thoughts.  Explore and experience the newness of God in this moment amidst the chaos and noise of this moment.

*A final note on the analogy of Abba.  To say that Jesus is abba, or to address God as Daddy is a metaphor.  God is not a biological father because being a father requires a mother to procreate.  God is the source of life as we understand the creation as Biblical Christians.  So Abba is necessarily a metaphor, so why call it an analogy?  Because it cascades meaning and metaphors down into a complex web of meanings and implications, it becomes more than a one-to-one meaning association.  It really is a analogy as used in the Gospels.

Why Study Theology as a non-Specialist?

Theology is not popular.  It is not a subject that elicits dinner invitations and offers for a beer, at least not outside of my circle of pastor and theologian friends.  I was called a god-geek once by a friend, and I was devastated.  I really thought everyone cared about third century christological statements.  I was wrong.

But you should care about theology; you have one.  A theology is a framework of information or a lens that you wear.  You may not think too much about it, but you already see the world through a framework or lens that has God on it.  The word “theology” means “thoughts about God” or “logic or structure about God.”  Logos is one of those helpful words to know.  It gets interpreted as “Word” in the beginning of the Gospel of John, but it means something much larger.  It is a big idea, an organizing principle, an order, a way of being or understanding.  The world is ordered and understood through this “word.”

A brilliant physicist and friend, also poet, philosopher, and theologian in his own right, Ke Chiang Hsieh, Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Arizona, gave me a gift of calligraphy.  After a sermon in which I compared the concept of the logos to the tau, he wrote out the first verses of the Way of Chuang Te with the word logos in the place of the word tau in Chinese.  It is the way that makes the walker.

An example is coffee to the connoisseur.  The connoisseur loves coffee, to the point that he understands the world through it.  He learns to drink wine by cupping coffee, to understand terroir by how understanding how different plants in the environment and procedures of processing affect the final cup.  He thinks of the church in terms of the cafe.  He thinks of mission in the church . . . You get the idea.  Everything gets filtered through the lens of the one thing.  That thing is a logos.  It is a word, “coffee”, but it is also a way of ordering and understanding the world.

So theology is essentially seeing the world through one word, in this case, God.  In particular for Christians, God as revealed in Christ and made manifest in the Holy Spirit through the stories and writings, histories, poetries, and letters of the Bible.

So why work at theology if is such a natural thing? You already see the world through a God lens right now.  The problem is that our lenses get easily distorted by events and natural wear and habits.

For example, God is often understood as “father.”  This is true of our teachings from Jesus, but even more so just naturally in a world where fathers have often been in charge and the title is used for the ones who are influential.  It was true in Jesus’ day.  When a father-figure fails, especially our biological father, it usually distorts our image of God, mentally, spiritually, emotionally, even physically.  To do a little theological work to separate our image of God from our experience of fathers is to delve deeply into the multi-faceted importance of theology.  We may still use the image of father as a way of talking about God, but not use Father as a proxy for God.  Or we may have to say we cannot use that image anymore.  We could spend years on this one topic.

There is a natural wear and tear to the lenses that we have.  I am a runner and a physical person.  I think about running, I obsess about my next pair of shoes, I plan runs.  I have opinions.  Those thoughts, obsessions, and opinions about running may seem unrelated to my thoughts about God, but they wear away at my theology.  I see God through my running too, and as my running self gets beat up or more in shape, my running thinking is changed, and that can wear on my vision of God.  I have gotten in better shape over the last ten years, and it would be easy to say that God is in getting in better shape because I have an easier time seeing God when I am not struggling with my body.  Or worse, I can let my being in shape be an idol to replace God.  I can let having better abs become more important than seeking the Rule of God.  In every case, it is theological work to separate and see clearly, then speak clearly a word about God that is more true.

Finally opinions.  I have opinions about lots of things.  My teacher when I was young used to say, Your recognition of the essential nature of the universe does not change the universe or its essential nature.  You ability to name the tau does not change the path, only your ability to walk it and enjoy the journey.  My opinions do not change things.  They are important to recognize, but they are not the thing itself or even reflective of it.  They are rarely really important.  The buddha would call them suffering, and these days I mostly agree.  Jesus would say, Do not judge, and I am trying more and more to submit.  Theology is not about having more opinions.

We learn theology.  In Owen C. Thomas’s and Ellen K. Wondra’s Introduction to Theology they begin the first page with a reminder than in the Anglican tradition, the Christian tradition, theology is about the Bible and the actual story and history and writings of the Hebrew and Christ-following people of God.  We are people of a way, and we are trying to name the way.  Ultimately all words about God fail, more surely than my words about my wife fall short of one smile from her.

But we do theology so that we can see clearly and speak clearly and walk the path with less stumbling.  I am deeply indebted to teachers and writers, pilgrims, travelers, and saints who have walked the way before me and left signs and markers, creeds and writings, that keep me on the way to the Rule of God.

That is the landscape we travel in and our hope, is it not?  To live in the Rule and Reign of God, the God revealed in Jesus to be love and shalom and justice.  To speak of that home that is our home and is not yet our home?

I love theology like I love poetry.  They both teach me what can be said in the space between our beautiful utterances show me glimpses of the places where others have been, where I have been, and where we can go.