State of Parish Address

I arrived at St Martin’s on the Feast of the Most Glorious and Most Holy Trinity -in secular time the 15th June 2014. At the outset, I felt it was important to set a few immediate priorities, ones that would enable me to begin to structure my relationship with the parish. I wanted to respond with confidence to the very strong signal given me in my interview process – that the parish was ready for change. The experience of change is always ambivalent. Change is yearned for while simultaneously resisted. That which we most long for is also the thing we often most fear.

The quandary for any incoming rector is how quickly to make changes. One argument suggests making change quickly so as to make good use of the honeymoon period when the community is at its most generous, excited about new possibilities, and open to change. The counter argument counsels that important change needs buy-in from the community experiencing the change. The level of buy-in needed to tackle difficult issues comes only with time and the discovery that the new rector is someone who can be trusted.

My initial assessment was that I was coming into a parish experiencing the ebb dynamic in its growth cycle. Like the tide, organizations flow towards fullness only to find after a period of time their energy begins to ebb. I felt I had arrived in a parish, which despite being a community of undreamed-of strength in terms of its human potential was experiencing life at low tide. In the State of Rhode Island, it’s low tide time more generally. There seems to be a fearfulness among many who wonder how much further the tide might continue to ebb before needed change can be embraced.

St Martin’s is a church that for many years has hovered around the transition point that marks the movement from the pastoral, to what I will call, the participative rather than the usual term program culture of parish organization. The pastoral church is focused on the priest at its center. The Rector is looked to for not only strategic leadership but is expected to have a hand in nearly everything that happens. The Vestry tends in this culture to micromanage community life. The problem is that at the upper end of the pastoral organization’s size, and this is where St Martin’s is, being priest centered and Vestry managed, inhibits growth. The expectation of priestly involvement in everything means that the parish cannot move beyond the limitations of one person’s capacity. The preoccupation of the Vestry with day-to-day management prevents it developing a higher level strategic vision.

In the participative parish leadership and initiative are more shared between Rector, Vestry, and membership. This is a community that possesses a higher and more dynamic level of spiritual capacity. The Rector does not have a hand in everything; he or she supported by assistant clergy is thus freed to attend to the strategic direction. Lay-led ministry teams are more active and autonomous. The Vestry relinquishes the day-to-day running of the parish to the paid Staff and is thereby freed to assist the Rector in mapping strategic direction of travel.

St Martin’s has been hovering at this transition point for a good many years. Recent history shows how difficult it is to secure this transition from pastoral to participative organizational culture. In some years, the parish has crossed the line. This has been marked by confidence and growth usually reflected in the appointment of assistant clergy, the strengthening of the paid staff, and by a surge in the vibrancy of lay ministries. Yet the experience of increased flow has repeatedly been followed by ebb. Energy ebbs back from participative to pastoral cultural modes, as confidence and resources to continue forward, falter.

What is it that flows only to then ebb? At one level, it can be tracked in terms of the crude measurements of money and bums on seats. More significantly, it is the flowing and ebbing of what truly makes a Christian community viable – its spiritual capacity.

In response to my assessment, over the last six months I have been signaling and where possible, implementing changes designed to stimulate the parish’s spiritual capacity. Where have these changes been?

Where have these changes been?

  1. The empowerment of the paid Staff through signaling my confidence in them. I have invited them as a team as well as individually, into my confidence. I believe members of Staff understand that I have confidence in them as a team, as well as in them individually. I have seen my task as one of empowering them to function at their optimal levels of skill, enthusiasm, and creativity. I have invited them into my thinking with the aim of engendering a style of a collaborative culture signaled by my valuing of their advice, wisdom, and support. An empowered, highly functional paid Staff, responsible for the day-to-day running of the organization is a hallmark of the participative parish culture.

There are budgetary implications to this empowerment. We will communicate about these in the presentation of the budget at the Annual Meeting. However, I want to emphasize that an increase in paid Staff capacity is the most effective way to lay the foundations for securing and sustaining our transition back t0 being a participative parish. By comparison the appointment of assistant clergy, while being infinitely more expensive, bears more limited fruit in supporting this transition, as this parish’s experience bears out.

  1. We engaged professional help to design and launch a new website. I was able over the summer to devote the time needed to write the content for this new website. At the same time, I began stimulating the use by our members of our parish FaceBook page. In the digital age, our web profile is our main communication with the wider world. Hardly anyone will visit us on a Sunday morning without first looking us up on the web. An active FaceBook page is one of the key indicators of energy among the membership. The website is where we profile who we are, and sound our theological and community tone to the wider world around us.

We are not where I want us to be digitally speaking. Yet, we have made a good start. In addition to now posting sermons in blog form on our website the next step is for them to appear as video and audio podcasts. The next phase of development is to move towards greater video, and less text dominated web format.

The missing demographic at St Martin’s is the late 20’s-40 age groups. A more vital web presence, radical Biblically based preaching, traditional worship, and accessible teaching on daily spiritual practice as a support in stress filled lives, are the key elements of spiritual capacity that in my experience, attracts the spiritual seekers in this age demographic.

  1. Empowerment of worship and education ministries has been and will continue to be a key priority for me. As Episcopalians, we define ourselves not through statements of belief, but through the central quality of our worship, which is the key defining characteristic of our Anglican Tradition.

Ministries of welcome and new member incorporation are part of our worship life. Our welcome ministry has had a good restart, but we need fuller membership buy-in and participation. Our growth will be limited by the speed at which everyone comes to embrace a model of every member ministry. 

Our Christian Formation ministries are where we attract and nurture our members in the active phases of family life. The nurturance of Christian family life is a complex process today. Once, families defined their spiritual lives through participation in Church Communities. Today, many other demands draw families away from Church involvement and we continue to live in this place of cultural tension.

  1. In the fall, the Staff, and I, supported by the Wardens worked very hard to implement a structured, and theologically led, Annual Renewal Campaign. The theology of financial giving seemed to many to be something they had not considered before. Placing gratitude at the heart of our financial thinking is a long-term sell in many Episcopal Churches. Yet, I am encouraged by the start that we have made together. There is very good news to report and more about this will be shared by our Junior Warden Sean Mulholland and our Treasurer Dennis Stark at the Annual Meeting. However, let me note that both the good and bad news is that we now generate an equivalent dollar value with half the number of pledging units we had in 2005. Sean will talk us through that story and its longer-term trend implications at the Annual Meeting.

The Lections today offer us two images of discipleship. In our Old Testament reading from the prophet Jonah we have an image of reluctance and outright refusal in response to God’s call. Jonah shows a very pissed-off attitude towards God. First he refuses to accept God’s call for him to preach to Nineveh, instead sailing away on a ship in the opposite direction. After being punished by being thrown overboard in a storm and swallowed by a whale, Jonah after the symbolic three days is eventually spewed up on the beach near Nineveh. He reluctantly enters the city and after traveling through the metropolis for a day calls the Ninevites to repent or else face the wrath of God. To his surprise, they heed his call, from highest to lowest. When God sees this he relents. In the next chapter, we read that Jonah is mightily pissed-off about this. He angrily tells God, see I could have told you back home that you would act like this. So why have you caused me all this grief only to go soft on Nineveh?

We can contrast Jonah’s call and response with the call by Jesus of his first disciples – Simon, his brother Andrew, and James and John the sons of Zebedee. They immediately drop everything they are doing and follow Jesus. Mark’s depiction of the call of the disciples is cryptic in the extreme. He presents a rather idealized image of a response to God’s call, unquestioning, completely trusting, and willing to give up everything else for the cause of following Jesus.

Jonah is a man who counts the cost of heeding God’s call and he seems to think the price is way too high. Simon, Andrew, James, and John seem heedless of the cost of the call to follow Jesus. Yet as we move through Mark’s Gospel we learn of the more mixed and ambivalent response of his disciples to God’s call.

Paul’s advice to the Corinthians tells us that we should live as if there is no time to loose. It’s just not possible to put off the call of God, thinking there is plenty of time tomorrow to think about this. Paul hints at the possibility of what if there is no tomorrow. How would this affect our decision-making process today?

So my question to all of us is what kind of disciples are we? How much time do we think we have to make up our minds? These are great questions on the Sunday of the Annual Parochial Meeting at St Martin’s, Providence. It’s the answers to these questions that will, or will not, catalyze us towards an increase in the spiritual capacity as the St Martin’s Community becomes more truly magnetic, thereby pulling more and more of those on the search for meaning and purpose beyond mere worldly satisfactions, into its heart.

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Identity and Global Tensions and Other Good Stuff

Identity- a moving target

Last week in my entry titled Adoption http://relationalrealities.com/2015/01/10/adoption/ I touched on the nature of identity. Identity remains a source of continual tension for the contemporary Western person because we have multiple, competing and overlapping sources of identity.

A simple example. Who is Mark Sutherland?  Mark Sutherland is an overly educated, white male, a New Zealander by birth, but British by adoption, living in New England. My identity shifts when I consider, as I recently had to, which passport do I travel on. Returning to New Zealand I left the US on my NZ passport but returned to the US on my British European Union passport containing my American Green Card. Each passport differently identifies me and my Green Card adds a further twist to identity. I am not speaking about legality here, but emotions. Each passport represents crucial emotional elements within an overlapping sense of identities.

My identity also shifts when considering other competing or overlapping elements of identity. Consider the attributes of middle class, overly educated, racially white, gendered male. Each signifies an aspect of identity which taken together construct an identity of someone well placed on the social pecking order – the only thing lacking is the possession of either a noble title or inordinate wealth to shoot me right to the top. However, my identity radically shifts when I add into the mix the element of being gay. In my identity as a gay man my experience of discrimination gives me an affinity not with overly educated white males, but with persons in society who are discriminated against because they are not male, or not white, or not educated.

Identity and global tensions

Differing notions of identity also go to the root of a growing tension between the West and Islamic societies. Although religion seems to be involved this is not a tension between Christianity and Islam. It’s rather a tension between differing notions of how identity is constructed. The capacity of Post Modern Secular societies and Traditional Religious societies to understand one another, never that great, seems to be deteriorating alarmingly. Religion- from the Latin religare, meaning to bind or the lack of it plays a part in this process.

In the world of Late Modern Western Culture, identity has become decoupled from family, clan, and religion because it is now firmly rooted in individual self-awareness.  While in Traditional Religious Culture identity is rooted not in an individual self awareness, but in a set of relationships that are structured by, and mediated through family, clan, and or religion.

The process of moving from relationally based identities fostered by the glue of religare, to secular individualist identity, decoupled from any notion of the existence of the divine has been chronicled by the philosopher Charles Taylor in his major opus A Secular Age. In the long progress of Western Society towards arriving at the first example of a secular society in human history, Taylor refers to the emergence of the buffered self.

Taylor defines secular to mean a social arrangement in which individual identity has not only become decoupled from family and clan with identity now residing in the unique and autonomous individual – the buffered self, but, and this is his main point, that the buffered self is a particular characteristic of the secular society, a society where identity is defined without any reference to the divine or God.

The notions of unencumbered right

Once upon a time, the framers of the Second Amendment to the US Constitution imagesunderstood the right to bear arms as the right of the community in the form of the militia to possess the means to defend itself against the encroachment of tyrannical government, acting unlawfully. The right the bear arms has now become the right of the buffered self to use or abuse guns in the pursuit of self defense against other members of the same community.

Once upon a time the right to free speech was the right of individual self expression free from the coercion of, and encroachment from, social and political authority.  Today, the right of free speech has become the right of the buffered self to say whatever is considered lawful to say, without regard to the consequences for others. Freedom of speech is now significantly decoupled from any sense of a duty to preserve social and political harmony. Free speech is controlled to some extend by legal duties that prevent speech that results in actual harm to another. Yet, there is no duty to refrain from intentionally giving offense through the unfettered exercise of free speech.

As we move further into the 21st Century, the world is increasingly characterized by a growing divide between societies in the Post Modern Western secular mode and societies that still adhere to traditional modes in which individual identity is defined by relationship to an extended community. In traditional societies social identity is still coupled to a sense of the presence of God and the social support afforded by religion.

In the growing acrimony and increasing violence that characterizes communication across the divide between Post Modern Western and Pre Modern Traditional societies, freedom of speech has become a litmus test, the core defining value for Western Society. We see this in the way freedom of speech has become a recent rallying cry following the terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo. We rally to the cause in collectively identifying with the cry – je suis Charlie! 

Living in the tension

I am a product of the secular West. For me the right to individual free speech is inalienable. I believe the achievement of the right to individual freedom of speech to be one of the crowning achievements of our Western social development. Consequently, I too feel the surge of passion in the proclamation je suis Charlie as a protest against the forces of mindless and brutal terrorism. This form of terrorism is so called, Islamic. Yet, under any sane analysis this kind of violent response is anything but Islamic. Terrorism in the name of Islam is the distorted and perverted response from the authoritarian mindset to the challenges presented by the Western value of freedom of speech. Yet, a question continues to haunt me.

Islam has not undergone a process of secularization. It still posits a worldview in which society and religion are not separable. In this worldview disrespect shown for the Prophet is not severable from an experience of being disrespected as a Muslim. The question that haunts me is: given that we know the offense felt by Muslims in the visual characterization of the Prophet, how is our freedom of speech commended or defended by gratuitously publishing images of the Prophet justified on the grounds that we are only treating Islam with the same degree of disrespect and mockery we accord to our own Christian and Jewish faith traditions? It is only within our worldview where religion is separate from society that ridiculing of its more ridiculous antics is fair game. This right does not extend, in my view, beyond our own worldview context.

Individual isolation the reification of individual rights

I value the development of the buffered self in the way it has enabled individual identity for the first time in history to stand out against collective definitions of personal identity. Yet, I agree with Taylor that an unintended consequence of secularization has been our increasing sense of personal isolation from one another. Reification is where something essentially abstract is made into something concrete. Is the exercise of our individual rights immutable, i.e. fixed and unchanging regardless of circumstances, or relative and contextual?

I believe that our total emphasis on individualistic rights decoupled from corresponding duties beyond the minimum stipulation of the law, is damaging for our society. Rights become distorted when we exercise them without any regard for a corresponding duty towards others. This is not only a somewhat remote duty towards societies that see the world differently from us, but when we increasingly exercise our rights without basic regard for one another’s wellbeing within our own society, something is un-balanced. I do not want to exercise my right to free speech as a weapon that causes gratuitous offense and hurt to my neighbor. My right to free speech is a right only to defend myself from social and political forces of coercion.

Religion and personal identity in a secular society

Another level of identity complexity resides in my notion of the baptized buffered self. Even if I am guilty of a certain selectivity among the various claims urged upon me of my baptism, as a baptized buffered self I recognize a higher duty towards others enjoined upon me by my Christian faith These claims impact my exercise of my legal rights.

A Christian voice

It is somewhat timely, that as the terrorist alert ratchets upwards and Western voices are raised in somewhat belligerent defense of our freedom of speech values we find ourselves being addressed by St Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. There is a context and a specific content to this exchange between Paul and the Corinthians that relates to sexual behavior. It seems that the Corinthians are still acting like Greeks in terms of a freedom to consort with prostitutes that Paul sees this as inconsistent with being Christian. It’s easy to read Paul as advocating a Jewish, puritanical attitude towards the sexual freedom, otherwise considered normal in Corinthian society. However it’s not the context or the content of Paul’s conversation with the Corinthians that interests me here.

What grabs my attention in this reading is Paul’s assertion that because he has a legal –here read moral as well as narrowly legal – right to a certain action or behavior, it does not automatically follow that it is beneficial for him or others that he insist on exercising his right. Paul is advocating a degree of self-restraint in the interests of promoting social harmony. This seems obvious in societies where identity is relational, i.e. a sense of identity being conferred through networks of extended social relationships like a family, clan, or tribe, supported by the adhesive function of religion. It seems less obvious when identity resides in individual self awareness.

Secular Western societies are comprised of buffered selves, individuals who compete and conflict with one another in the exercise of the rights they enjoy under the law. The law is the ultimate guarantor of our rights and is also the minimal referee between competing rights in the interests of a minimum of social order. However the law is selective. For instance, racial or gender abuse is no longer protected under the right to freedom of speech, but abuse of gays and religious believers still is. Beyond the minimal constraint imposed by law we are left to exercise our rights as if we lived in isolation from one another. There is little sense of duty owed towards one another. Yet, Paul reminds us that for those of us who recognize God’s claim upon us through our allegiance to the Christian faith, we must consider our duty towards others as a primary factor influencing the way we do or don’t exercise our rights.

In this way our religious identity becomes another significant element in our experience of multiple identities. Christian faith moves from the purely private sphere to influence our behavior in the public sphere. Paul goes on to develop his argument in 1 Corinthians. He says that although the gospel frees him to do all that his conscience allows, if the free exercise of his rights causes another to stumble, then the duty he owes to those not able to exercise the full degree of freedom is to restrain himself in his otherwise lawful exercise of his rights.

The giving of grave offense to Muslims cannot ever be a justification for acts of terrorism in the name of the Prophet – peace be upon him. Yet, the Apostle Paul reminds us of the danger in exercising rights unfettered by a sense of duty to others. Translating this into our current global context, freedom of speech is not an absolute right exercised as if in a moral vacuum, mindless of consequences. It is limited by our duty not to give gratuitous offense to another. It is doubly so when we very well know that grave offense will be the consequence of our insistence on our legal rights.

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Adoption

Initial Reflections

I am so glad to get back to Mark’s Gospel. There is a radical immediacy in the Marcan presentation of Jesus that leaves the reader in little doubt that God is breathlessly at work in the world. There is the drama of urgency in Mark’s language and so he begins: in those days whenthis and that were happening, God did this really amazing thing.

What amazing thing is this? Well, we are so used to the storyline of Jesus’ baptism, which both Matthew and Luke follow, that we miss the drama of Mark’s image of God ripping apart (schizomai) an opening in the heavens. In Matthew and Luke, the heavens merely open (anoigo) like the curtain parting to reveal the opening scenes of a play – except that in both these gospels, Jesus’ baptism is not the opening scene.crop

Only in Mark, do we first meet Jesus at his baptism. Mark presents Jesus’ baptism within the messianic transgenerational vision, here instanced by the presence of John the Baptist. However, the most dramatic aspect ofMark’s presentation is the way God rips the heavens asunder and declares in a booming voicethis is my son and I am just ripped, i.e. ecstatic about him. When something is ripped it remains tattered, leaving a gaping hole in that which was previously whole.

Mark’s gospel begins and ends with images of something being ripped or torn open. Through the resulting rend a new set of possibilities flood in. Mark begins with the heavens being ripped open leaving a rend in the heaven-earth continuum that cannot be sown up again. Through this tear the Holy Spirit pours down upon Jesus, and through him deluging the world in a completely new way.

wpd062c01b_05_06Mark ends his gospel with the veil in the Temple, separating the sacred from the profane being ripped in two. The holy is let loose from the confines of sacred space into the open space of the world.

Continued Reflections

I’ve literally just returned from two weeks visiting with family and friends in New Zealand, the land of my birth. With this in mind, the contrast between Mark’s introduction of Jesus and the way Matthew and Luke introduce him is striking me very powerfully. The Jesus of Matthew and Luke is born-into his identity as God’s son. We might say his identity is a matter of birth. In Mark, Jesus’ identity as God’s son seems to be a matter not of birth, but of adoption. The coincidence of my visit home? with Mark’s Gospel being set for the Baptism of Christ has led me to reflect on my experience of the contrasting interplay between the significance of being born into, and adoption. Home – where I wonder is home? Is home birthplace or place of adoption?

For each one of us, the interplay between the significance of being born-into and adoption of identity will vary. I have known a number of persons for whom this interplay is a painful one resulting from the experience of being adopted by parents other than those who gave birth to them. The experience of infant or child adoption for some can raise excruciating questions of identity because for most of us identity is primarily shaped by that which we were born-into. For others, and I count myself among this group, identity is a process of shaping within contexts of adoption.

I am aware that the distinction between being born-into and adoption, even if drawn differently in each of us, is also an artificial one. Identity for each one of us is a multilayered complex comprising awareness of both the experiences of being born-into and of adoption-by. Within each of us, the boundaries between our identifications with the significances of birth and adoption continually ebb and flow. Yet, each of us will tend toward a conscious valuing of one over the other.

The recent experience of traveling to the land of my birth, to my family of origin, and the friends that were part of my growing-up within that context, and Mark’s opening presentation of Jesus at his baptism is causing me to reflect anew on my experience of the interplay between the significances I attach to birth and adoption. It also leads me to pose a more general question: to what extent is our identity consciously shaped by either something we are born-into or by a process of adoption and being adopted?

For the first 22 years of my life, I lived in the land of my birth. While I have no wish to underestimate the significance of the formative influences of time and place, my subsequent 37 years are years in which my adult identity has been shaped by contexts not of birth, but adoption. One result of this is that for me, family is less a matter of blood than it is a matter of choice. Most of the time, for peace of mind sake, I want to say this matter is settled. Yet after my recent visit, I am reminded that identity is never quite so neatly settled, or so it would seem.

Renewed Reflections

I. All of this leads me to a renewed reflection on what is given and what is chosen. This is not simply a reflection on Mark’s depiction of Jesus’ baptism and the interplay between the significances of what is given (birth) and what is chosen (adoption). I am led to a renewed realization of the significance for each Christian of our baptism as an expression of the interplay between birth and adoption, between what is given and what is chosen.

II. Mark’s message is that even for Jesus, identity is a matter of choice and not simply a given of his birth. Jesus chooses to come to John and to receive the baptism of water at the hands of one who freely admits he is not worthy to untie his (Jesus’) sandals. Can we see in Mark’s depiction of the Baptism of Jesus, God choosing to use this event as the opportunity to affirm that the nature of the relationship between them is less a matter of birth than adoption? This seems a bold assertion coming so soon after the celebration of the Nativity. Yet, I do think that this is what Mark, who is deeply influenced by Paul, intends.

III. If Jesus’ baptism is the moment when God tears open a rend in the heavens through which the Holy Spirit deluges the world, what then is the meaning and purpose of our own baptism? Following Augustine it has often been difficult for Christians, fearful of their place in the scheme of things, not to erroneously connect baptism with personal salvation. Yet, isn’t the gift of life, in and of itself a gift from God that is complete according to the beauty and order of Creation. All human beings by birth are made as an expression of God’s love for the world. Being loved by God is a gift we enjoy because through biological birth it is given to us. This realization leads me again and again to want to assert that: To be human is to be most like God.

IV. Yet, the natural, material order is only one strand in an experience that contributes to our sense of possessing multilayered identity (ies). There is the identity as child of God through the natural processes of birth. Yet, Christians understand that there is a second birth that takes identity to a new level. This is not a material birth but a spiritual birth. The characteristic of spiritual birth is choice. We are not born into the spiritual life, we adopt and are adopted into it. Unlike our physical life, it is not a given, but a choice!

V. Baptism is entry into participation in the active life of Christ. It is an entry into a set of community relationships through which we come to the spiritual life not as a journey undertaken alone, but as one undertaken in the company of one another. Together, through our baptism into the Body of Christ in the world, we become conduits for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit’s deluge of the world through the tears in a universe where before Heaven was separated from earth and the sacred walled off from the profane. Baptism is the choice to become adopted sons and daughters and God is ripped, i.e. well pleased with us!

If being born human is to be most like God then being baptized is to be adopted into a new level of identity as those who know that to be human is to be most like God. Such knowledge is not only an immense responsibility, but also a humbling privilege!

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Finding Enchantment In A Disenchanted Age

Reredos Center Panel Cropped color corrected 064I

I want to say to you all, visitors, annually returning old friends, spiritual seekers, and regular members the Episcopal Church welcomes you! Whoever you are, what- ever you think you believe or don’t believe, know that you are in good company here. So I say, welcome all to Downton Abbey, a world of bewildering, yet magnetic rituals and tradition.

In my mind, there is a strong link between the Episcopal Church and Downton Abbey, beyond our mere sharing of things English. Like Downton Abbey, Episcopalians sit in the tension between the rituals of a Tradition that often appears to have been crafted for another age, and the demands of life as we try to live it, in 21st century America. We are not alone in this, but we are unusual in our failure to resolve this tension by either saying:

tradition trumps modern life – as appears in current expressions of conservative Christianity whether Catholic and Evangelical, or modern life trumps tradition – as appears in much of the response from Liberal Protestantism. 

Like the inhabitants of Downton Abbey, in the Episcopal Church we struggle to inhabit our rituals and interpret the Christian Tradition passed to us so that it might speak anew its wisdom in a world where the rapidity of change is truly unprecedented in history.

America as a nation itself sits in this tension between the tradition known as the American Dream and the challenges of a rapidly changing world. The Episcopal Church, America’s best kept secret, welcomes you to life in the tension or the fast lane. Here the gritty struggle between faith and doubt, hope and fear, nostalgia for the past and terror of the future, is continually shaping us in our calling to be living channels for the pouring of God’s love into the world.

II

Luke is the great historian of the New Testament. His Gospel places the birth of Jesus in historical time and place that comes to us across 2000 years of transmission and interpretation. Luke’s narrative of the birth of Jesus depicts an enchanted world where God communicates through angels to shepherds to those who are on the margins of social acceptability. This is an enchanted world where the Creator of the Universe is born as the most fragile of life forms, the human infant; in a stable, in the most marginal of circumstances; and not only survives, but gives rise to a birthing of the Kingdom of God that changes simply everything.

Luke doesn’t invent his narrative from pure imagination. Like all good storytellers he welds together the experience of his readers, who need to make sense of challenges of life in the 1st Century, with elements in a trans-generational vision that offers him the central image of a birth of a child that ushers in a new order in the cycle of creation.

To us, Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus contains fairy-tale aspects from a time of enchantment. Yet, what seem to us a mere fairy-tale elements, have for much of Christian history so closely resonated with the precarious vulnerability of the lives people actually lived. Like the actors in Luke’s drama of the birth of Jesus most of our ancestors lived in similar rural poverty, where life was precarious and often hard. It also resonated with the enchanted mindset [1] in which God was experienced to be magically and mysteriously present in every aspect of the material world that surrounded human life. In this world of enchantment, God was never absent, and people never felt alone.

So how does this story resonate with us whose lives are lived amidst the urban and technological complexities of 21st century America? How does this story communicate to a people whose disenchanted mindset[2] no longer has room for the magical and mysterious presence of God at the level of material reality? In our disenchanted world, God seems largely absent. 300 years of scientific progress has left us feeling alone, center stage in a lonely and potentially hostile universe.

It’s impossible for us to return to that enchanted mindset, no matter how much we might wish to do so. Ours is not a world filled with the magical presence of God – 300 years of scientific rationalism has unalterably changed the way we think. Yet, human beings are still capable of imagination, we still dream.

III

The birth of Jesus is significant, not in the seeming fairy-tale details of Luke’s narrative, but because it still resonates with the deeper, imaginative dreaming parts of our lives.  In his op-ed The Subtle Sensations of Faith, this past week the New York Times columnist David Brooks quotes one of the great religious mystics in contemporary America, Christian Wiman who in his spiritual autobiography My Bright Abyss asks:

When I hear people say they have no religious impulse whatsoever ... I always want to respond: Really? You have never felt overwhelmed by, and in some way inadequate to, an experience in your life, have never felt something in yourself staking a claim beyond yourself, some wordless mystery straining through word to reach you? Never? 

For many of us the intimations of a spiritual dimension to life, somehow lying alongside the flat reductive rationality of our day to day existence, are so fragmented that we have no way of joining them up into a sense-making experience. Like the half-remembered fragments of our nightly dreams and visions, they remain half intuited and consigned to a shadow-land, which we no longer recognize as real in any meaningful way.

Brooks noting this quotes his friend Wiman again:

Religion is not made of these moments; religion is the means of making these moments part of your life rather than merely radical intrusions so foreign and perhaps even fearsome that you can’t even acknowledge their existence afterward. Religion is what you do with these moments of over-mastery in your life.

Religion offers us a mechanism to organize and make sensible our intuitions of radical intrusion from the spiritual dimension. The difference between Luke’s enchanted mindset – a mindset that permeates the whole of our Scriptural Tradition and our disenchanted post scientific rationalism lies in the different perception with regard to the location of spiritual experience. For Luke and the enchanted mindset, spiritual experience is essentially external, permeating and communicating through the very structures – the objects, contexts, and relationships of the material world. For us, spiritual experience is now essentially internal, permeating and communicating not through the material world of objects and contexts around us, but through the psychospiritual worlds within us.

As 21st century people we have no less of a need for religion’s rituals and Tradition than our Christian forebears had. It’s that we have a need for a renewed religious experience that breaks free of a need to push God and our spiritual experience back into the enchanted mindset. For most of us who cannot inhabit this mindset anymore the result is the atomization or fragmentation of our spiritual experience under the relentless alienation of disenchanted reductionism.

What we require is a renewed imaginative religious mindset capable of integrating the alienated aspects of our dreaming and longing selves. We need a religion that does not take us back to enchantment, but one that can carry us forward beyond our current addiction to disenchantment, an addiction to only what can be seen, measured, and scientifically verified.

The event we know of as the Incarnation – literally God, the Creator becoming one with the Creation is a uniquely Christian perspective that we are in dire need of renewing for our 21st century lives. As I noted earlier we find ourselves sandwiched between the echoes of certainties we no longer feel we can trust and the experience of ourselves catapulting at an alarming speed into an uncertain future. Yet, the message of the Incarnation is that Dreams are nevertheless made real within the context of limitation and uncertainty.

God calls us to incarnate our dreams. Like God’s dream incarnated in the birth of Jesus, incarnating our dreams happens within the limitations of our imperfect human lives. Propitious circumstances are not required for the incarnation of dreams.

David Brooks puts it this way:

Insecure believers sometimes cling to a rigid and simplistic faith. But confident believers are willing to face their dry spells, doubts, and evolution. Faith as practiced by such people is change. It is restless, growing. It’s not right and wrong that changes, but their spiritual state and their daily practice. As the longings grow richer, life does, too

Dreams are incarnated in us when we connect with our passions and dedicate ourselves to living passionately, with a compassion born from the realization that we are interconnected and interdependent, together within the ebb and flow of a universe that is responsive to our dreams.

Our dreams are the most accurate reflection of the way the divine universe really functions. Life is not a plan – conceived, implemented with certainty of direction and prediction of outcome. Life is more like a dream, always evolving and in the process of becoming. Life, like our dreaming is fluid, ebbing and flowing and responsive to events and experience.

This is how I imagine it works. When we incorporate our dreaming into everyday life we become, individually and communally, more magnetic. By becoming more and more magnetic, we draw the energies of life into us. We incorporate our dreaming into everyday life when we make dreaming our core resource. That when our dreaming, hoping and loving; together with the eschewed resources of our suffering, and fearfulness, become available for living, the resources of life flow to meet us. At points of suffering and disillusionment the tide ebbs only to gather and return with a flowing fullness towards us. David Books again: to be truly alive is to feel one’s ultimate existence within one’s daily existence.

The message of the Incarnation is that God operates within the limitations of human nature and human society. The message of the Incarnation is a simple one that fulfills the cycle of creation  initiated in the stories of the creation in Genesis. It is this: that to be human is to be most like God. To be Christian is simply: to know that to be human is to be most like God.

[1] Charles Taylor in his tome A Secular Age poses the concepts of enchantment and disenchantment to distinguish between the contrasting mindsets before and after the social evolution he calls the development of the secular age.

[2] Taylor describes the experience for Western Society during and following the Enlightenment Rational and Scientific Revolutions as a growing experience of disenchantment.

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Let it be!

Recapping the argument

Advent frames three human experiences: expectation, preparation, and waiting. Expectation is tricky. How much expectation can we allow or even tolerate? Preparation is more comfortable, being busy is a wonderful distraction for anxious people. Most of us restrict expectation to what can be reasonably hoped for. I am sure you are familiar with the old adage: cut the coat to suit the cloth. The question always is: how much cloth do we think we have, and given that, how efficiently can we cut the coat?

Episcopalians tend to be moderate people. We are attracted to the Anglican espousal of moderation. There is a lot of safety in this. When it comes to expectations, ours are always reasonable, and our coats usually tasteful if not fashionable, and always carefully understated, lest heaven forbid we become open to the accusation of being flashy.

Three towering heroes of mine from the last century are the theologian Paul Tillich, the psychoanalyst Alice Miller, and the poet T.S. Eliot. Each challenges my assumption that I can expect only what I can prepare for. By contrast, they all advocate in favor of the notion that we only become what we have the courage to hope for. Who we currently can be is limited by the poverty of what we are brave enough to hope for.

For me, Advent is a time when something I call the trans-generational vision comes more sharply into focus. The TGV (not to be confused with the Train à Grande Vitesse, the French high speed trains bearing the same acronym) is a leitmotif of divine expectation, weaving in and out of human consciousness, surfacing and submerging, only to surface again and again throughout the events of human history. For Christians, the leitmotif of divine expectation becomes anchored in the event we know as the IncarnationGod becoming human in the birth of Jesus. Immediately preceding the Incarnation, paving the way lies another event known by us as the Annunciation. 

The Annunciation is a uniquely Lucan idea. Note that in Matthew’s version of the birth narrative, an angel speaks to Joseph in a dream. Luke goes further, like a good historian he names the angel as the ArchAngel Gabriel, and it is to Mary, not Joseph that he/she (angels are always androgynous) speaks. But, who is Mary? Any exploration of the Annunciation begins with a tongue-in-cheek request: would the real Mary please stand-up? 

The Biblical evidence

In Matthew’ Gospel, Mary is simply the betrothed of Joseph. The earlier Gospel of Mark makes scant mention of her at all. Joseph is the important figure for the Jewish Matthew because it is through Joseph that Jesus’ lineage is traceable back to the house of David. Locating Jesus within Isaiah’s prophesies is a crucial element in the TGV confirming Jesus’ identity. Luke, not being Jewish, and not interested in Jewish lineage, places Mary within a larger narrative of the birth of John the Baptist, another stand in the TGV. John is conceived to Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin. This is more than a point of familial connection for in the TGV John the Baptist is Elijah announcing the coming of the Messiah. In the Biblical record, after the birth and some other events recorded in Jesus’ childhood Mary does not appear again except in one incident in Mark, where she appears with Jesus’ brothers who want to take Jesus home because they think he is mad. John records Mary at the wedding at Cana and all the Evangelists record her presence at the foot of the Cross.

Christian Traditions

There is no single tradition on Mary, but competing Christian traditions about Mary, and in which her significance varies. In Catholicism, Mary is the Virgin Mother of God and crowned by Christ as Queen of Heaven. In Orthodoxy, Mary is the Theotokos, the Godbearer, which is a concept I like. In the Reformation Churches, Mary is significant as someone to be ignored. She lies buried beneath layer upon layer of vying political pieties: catholic, protestant, patriarchal, and not to forget, feminist. Mary is alternatively heroine or victim.

Mary in Anglican Tradition

For Anglicans, being moderate people, Mary is neither venerated nor ignored. She is the saintly Mary, the earthly mother of Jesus, who embodies the primary human characteristics of courage, patience, and compassion. Mary is honored because she is chosen of God. As Anglicans, Episcopalians honor Mary. After all, we’ve named a good number of our Churches after her. In our Gothic Revival Churches, of which St Martin’s is one, to the right of the main sanctuary is a small chapel, traditionally known as the Lady Chapel. The Lady Chapel is the place for more intimate weekday prayer and worship, in which we find an image of Mary, sometimes alone, sometimes as mother with child, traditionally in glass or stone, and more recently in Icon form. We are affectionate towards her, we honor her, we feel she is somehow on our side as we ask for her prayerful consideration, but we draw the line at worshiping her, or assigning to her a semi-divine status. Like Jesus, what matters to us about Mary, is her humanity.

As Anglicans, Episcopalians abhor any spirituality of the exceptional. Not for us the spirituality of the unique. We value the spirituality of Benedict because it is a spirituality, not of the exceptional or the unique, but of the ordinary and the everyday. We honor Mary not because she is exceptional and unique, but because she is homely and ordinary. It is because of her ordinariness and not in spite of it that Mary is chosen by God. For us, it is the Annunciation to Mary, not the Immaculate Conception, nor the Assumption of Mary that we look to, to shape our view of her.

Although we affirm her virginity in the Creeds, we don’t focus so much on whether she was really a virgin or not in any biological sense. The Virgin Birth is a doctrine of the Universal and Apostolic Church, and as part of this tradition Anglican Episcopalians hold it to be true, but we don’t lie awake at night worrying about it, and we don’t hold it as a badge of orthodoxy. What is important for us is that it is God’s message to Mary not anything special about Mary that sets her apart. Mary is not the subject of the Annunciation, in other words, it is not about her!

Mary in the Trans-generational Vision

Although growing up I was steeped in the Anglo-Catholic piety, which holds an honored place for Mary – a piety pretty much as I describe above, I no longer look to traditional Catholic piety for my orientation to Mary. What interests me is who Mary can be seen to be within the concept of the trans-generational vision.

The TGV first appears in the first two chapters of Genesis telling the stories of Creation. The creation stories – there are two – tell of God creating from nothing. Actually, the Hebrew concept here is not creation out of nothing (ex nihilo fit nihilo – out of nothing comes nothing), but of creation as a process of God bringing order out of chaos. Humanity emerges within this process of God ordering the primal elements of chaos into shape and form.

Now fast forward to the visit of Gabriel to Mary. In a sense, I see the Genesis theme of creation echoed in this angelic –human encounter. Gabriel announces to Mary God’s intention to make a new creation, or maybe more accurately to take the next big step in the cycle of creation. What God announces is an intention to dismantle for specific purposes the demarcation between creator and creation. Gabriel announces to Mary God’s intention to enter into the experience of creation through taking on the limitations of human existence. How does God propose to do this? In Luke’s narrative construction of Mary’s angelic encounter God announces the hope of building a bridge between the divine and the human, a bridge located in the promise of a new human life. In the life of the Christ Child, God enters into time and space at a certain point of history.

The Annunciation is not only an incremental step in the cycle of creation, it is a game changer, as Americans say. In Genesis, God’s creative energy is not limited by anything beyond God. In the Annunciation God’s creative energy is dependent on Mary’s collaboration. Is it accurate to say God can be limited by the absence of human consent? Although in theory it is not accurate to say so, in practice it appears to be so. I see in the Annunciation God-honoring a core element in the Genesis endowment of human life, i.e. freedom to choose. God is modeling respect for freedom of choice, in requiring Mary’s collaboration in the plan. God not only is seeking to be bound by the need for human consent, God seems to be inviting humanity, in the form of Mary, to be a full participant in the next big step of creation – the incarnation of creator into the creation as an embodiment of God’s creative energy, which is love.

Chosen by God?

It seems to me that to be chosen by God is tantamount to a curse. Who willingly wants to pay the costs of collaboration with God as Mary and Jesus each paid? Yet, it’s important not to see Mary as a divine victim, who faced with the enormity of the encounter with the divine could not refuse. Between the end of Gabriel’s salutation Hail  most favored one and Mary’s …be it to me according to his word, all of heaven and earth waited in silence. What fills this silence in Mary’s mind and heart is an intoxicating question inviting wild speculations.

Botticelli’s The Castello Annunciation, the picture accompanying this posting captures my imagining of Mary’s response to Gabriel. In it, Gabriel kneels before a standing Mary. The sheer momentousness of Gabriel’s communication is like a physical force pushing Mary to the very edge of the frame. Her head bows forward enveloped by the halo of consent, yet, while one hand is extended in a possible gesture of welcome, the other is raised in protection, warding the angel off. Her outer blue robe is open revealing a red dress through an opening suggestive of a reproductive receptivity. Out of the window the distant scene is of a bridge only half completed. It is as if God has built from God’s side, and now waits for Mary to agree to complete the bridge from hers. In his poetic reflection on this painting, Andrew Huggins puts it like this:

And though she will, she’s not yet said, Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord, as Botticelli, in his great pity, lets her refuse, accept, refuse, and think again. [1]

In her ambivalence, Mary is every one whose heart longs to open to receive God more fully, while at the same time gravely fearing to do so. While we have every reason to be wary of becoming the object of the Lord’s favor, the Word of God is born in the yes of every heart. However, that yes is not a heroic fearless yes, nor a callow acquiescence. Saying yes to God always involves a dynamic dance between the poles of refusal and acceptance. This is a repetitive dance, one that allows for both a further refusal and time to think again before a final decision.

Mary is not special. Her virginity is an immaterial distraction and our preoccupation with it says more about us than her. What matters about Mary is her acceptance of her role as an agent in the in-breaking of the Kingdom. In her great song of affirmation, The Magnificat, Mary extols that in her soul God has become magnified not because he has given her the Christ Child to bear – she says nothing about this – but because in her ordinariness God has called her to play her part in the birthing the Kingdom of God. In the Kingdom God’s mercy is on those who love him. The proud are scattered by the grandiosity of their imaginings. The powerful are exposed and the powerless are raised up. Those who hunger are fed with good things and the rich are sent away hungry. For in the Kingdom of God, this is the trans-generational vision: that the promise is made again and again, firstly to Abraham and then to all of us who follow him, until the end of time.

Expectation and waiting

If it’s the Kingdom we are waiting with the expectation of birthing, then we must have the courage in our present time to give birth to it through our audacious dreaming of its coming. Remember we are already that for which we wait. The implication here is that we cannot be agents of the Kingdom’s birthing or put another way, the Kingdom cannot come to birth in our yes if we don’t expect it’s coming. The Kingdom is here and still emerging, in and through us. Ours is to bear it’s expectation – T.S. Eliot’s hoping and loving through the courage of waiting in the full expectation of its arrival. In the meantime, we get on with procreating it’s signs in the here and now or as the words of that great Beatles song echo those of Mary herself: Let it be!

[1] I am grateful to Debie Thomas’s referencing of the Botticelli work and of Andrew Huggins’ poem on it.

The angel has already said, Be not afraid.
He’s said, The power of the Most High
will darken you.  Her eyes are downcast and half closed.
And there’s a long pause — a pause here of forever —
As the angel crowds her. She backs away,
her left side pressed against the picture frame.

He kneels.  He’s come in all unearthly innocence
to tell her of glory — not knowing, not remembering
how terrible it is. And Botticelli
gives her eternity to turn, look out the doorway, where
on a far hill floats a castle, and halfway across
the river toward it juts a bridge, not completed —

and neither is the touch, angel to virgin,
both her hands held up, both elegant, one raised
as if to say stop, while the other hand, the right one,
reaches toward his; and as it does, it parts her blue robe
and reveals the concealed red of her inner garment
to the red tiles of the floor and the red folds

of the angel’s robe. But her whole body pulls away.
Only her head, already haloed, bows,
acquiescing. And though she will, she’s not yet said,
Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord,
as Botticelli, in his great pity, lets her refuse, accept, refuse, and think again

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Dreaming Good News is Hoping and Loving in the Waiting

Measuring time

The birth of Christ is for us, the pivotal point of history. Western Civilization calibrates time according to whether events happen before or after the birth of Christ. The centuries before Christ count forward or actually backward as it were, to the year 0. The centuries following Christ’s birth count forward from 0 onward.

The designations BC -before Christ and AD anno domini – after Christ have been replaced by the neutral designations BCE and CE referring to either before or during the common era. Yet, despite the attempt to decrease the prominence of a Christo-centric view of time, the neutral designations, nevertheless still paradoxically, affirm the significance of the birth of Christ. In ways most of us are hardly aware of anymore, the birth of Christ remains the defining moment that continues to shape our sense of the flow of history.

imagesLast week I introduced a concept I’ve named the trans-generational vision. This is the central vision that punctuates the passage of time. The trans-generational vision weaves in and out of the flow of history, surfacing before submerging only to resurface again centuries later. The Holy Scriptures are the textual record of this process – a process of tracking the movements of the Spirit of God weaving in and out of human history.

The book of the prophet Isaiah

The Book of the Prophet Isaiah operates like a fractal for the trans-generational vision. Wikipedia defines a fractal as a natural phenomenon or a mathematical set that exhibits a repeating pattern that displays at every scale. Snowflakes are a common example of fractals with every part of the crystal being a complete mirror image of the whole.images-1

The Book of Isaiah falls into three distinct historical epochs spanning around 350 years. The voice of the prophet we call Isaiah is, therefore, three distinct voices. We divide the book into that of First Isaiah - chapters 1 to 39, Second Isaiah – chapters 40 to 55, and Third Isaiah comprising chapters 56 to 66. Each of these three voices is the articulation of the trans-generational vision surfacing in the midst of three distinct periods of crisis in history of Israel, namely:

  1. The invasion of the Northern Kingdom and destruction of its capital Samaria with the permanent deportation of the king, nobles and priesthood in 722-21 by Assyrian King, Sennacherib. In this period the First Isaiah foretells of the birth of the messiah in the person of a child, born to a maiden, a child who will usher in a reign of unparalleled peace and prosperity for Israel.
  2. The destruction of the Southern Kingdom of Judah and Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon in 586 with the deportation of King, priests and nobles into a 50 year exile in Babylon.  Second Isaiah gives voice to this calamity in a messianic figure of the Suffering Servant, who announces the coming of the Kingdom of God through his taking upon himself the sin and suffering of the people.
  3. The freeing of the exiles by Cyrus, King of Persia in 515 and their return to rebuild Jerusalem in the period following 515 forms the period focus for chapter 61 appointed for Advent III. Here the figure of the messiah – promised one, announces himself as the one upon whom the Spirit of God rests in order to announce good news to the people.

The return of the exiles began as a period of hope and rejoicing after the 50 years in exile. The exhilaration of the returning exiles for whom God was forging a road through the desert, leveling the high places low and the terra-forming of the rough places into a plain, was an exhilaration at the prospect of rebuilding the Solomon’s Temple. Yet, the difficulty of the task, the scarcity of resources, the animosity of the surrounding peoples towards the returning exiles engendered a society where the rich diverted the scarce resources away from the reconstruction of the Temple in order to build fine houses for themselves. A culture of oppression of the poor and powerless by the rich and powerful quickly reestablished itself. We read of this situation painfully described by the prophets Zechariah, Nehemiah, and Esra. It is in judgment of this situation against which the Third Isaiah raises his prophetic voice.

The first Christians, in the years that followed the death of Jesus and his resurrection as the Christ, looked back and perceived the trans-generational vision of Isaiah resurfacing again in the person of Jesus. For generations of Christians who followed the figures of the child Eman-uel, the Suffering Servant whose visage is so disfigured by his having taken our transgressions upon himself, and the figure of the anointed one who brings good news to the poor are consequently, very familiar. For most of us, we know them so well because they were so powerfully memorialized by Handel in his great oratorio: The Messiah. 

In the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke, Jesus is the child Eman-uel born to the maiden Mary. In his Passion and Crucifixion, Jesus becomes the embodiment of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant who dies as a sacrificial expression of God’s great love for the world. Jesus’ offers his first public self-definition when in the synagogue at Nazareth he proclaims his identification with the figure of the anointed one who brings good news to those oppressed, healing to those of us with broken hearts, liberty to we who are held captive, and the arrival for all of the year of the Lord’s favor – the year of Jubilee.

A word out of place

Another way of thinking about the trans-generational vision is to be reminded that it is the intrusion into temporal time of a word out of place. By this I mean that a word out of place is a dream not simply of the improbable, but of the seemingly impossible. This for me is the chief characteristic of the trans-generational vision. It is always a vision that seems to be fantastical within the context of its emergence.

As we move into the second decade of the 21st century, what do we as a culture dream about? We have become increasingly fearful of the future as we see the culture unraveling in the present. A trend I find disturbing is our addiction to short-term thinking and grasping at short-term solutions that satisfy needs today and simply reinforce that the future us something to be afraid of. Our capacity to dream seems now to be limited to the preservation of self-interest, both individual and community self-interest, in the present. In nearly every area of our public life, we are failing to invest today in a future that we won’t live to see. Have we become so self-preoccupied that we no longer care about the world our children and their children are likely to inherit?

Blame obfuscating shame

Republicans blame Democrats and vice versa. Independents blame both parties. Yet all of us keep returning politicians to office on the most spurious, fear mongering, and short term of visions. Surely, the aspirations behind our political allegiances stand for more than this? Is not our location on the political continuum an indication that we yearn for a deeper vision for the future than the one we see being fulfilled in our present?  We now prefer the blame game when acknowledging our shame might be a more healthy response.

At the moment, we seem to be capable only of dreaming of a future that is worse than the present. Yet, the message of the trans-generational spiritual vision reminds us that solutions to the problems of today lie in our courage to dream of a better tomorrow. Such dreaming defies our sense of the limitation that pervades our collective mood. Such dreaming should startle us by the extent to which it is a word out of place.

We recognize a faith-driven trans-generational vision by its fantastical nature. What seems fantastical is only the audacity to break away from the projections of a future limited by the present consideration of the sensible, probable or possible.

Proclaiming good news

In the vision in Isaiah 61 of the good news God is offering us more than a political manifesto for social action, although such is badly needed. God is inviting us to dream of moving beyond the poverty of only what can be imagined within imaginations limited by a lack of courage to dream. God is inviting us to bind-up one another’s wounds and cease from wounding one another further. God is longing for us to liberate ourselves from being captive to the short-termism of our current addiction to self-interest and self-protection.

The trans-generational vision resurfaces in times of deep despair and fear. We are living through such a time! Advent is the time to renew our commitment to furthering in the present the dream of the future. Advent is a time of waiting. Over the last two weeks, I have been reminding my hearers and readers that we become that which we long and hope for. We are already those for whom we wait.

To paraphrase T.S. Eliot’s words from his poem East Coker:

to hope is invariably to hope for the wrong thing; to love is to want to love the wrong thing, but there is faith, and faith is the hoping and the longing in the waiting!

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We are who we have been waiting for (Alice Miller)

Consciousness

For me, the hardest experience of all is that of waiting. Increasingly, waiting forms my understanding of Advent. In as much as Advent is a time for preparation, the preparation consists in learning to tolerate the waiting. So, it is important how we wait. In what state – fearfully, with complacency, or hopefully, do we wait?

I am fascinated by the passage of time. More correctly I am fascinated by the way we understand the passage of time as if it really does flow along a continuum from the past, through the present, into the future. While time flows on a continuum, we are not free to flow with it, for between the past, present, and future our conscious minds encounter barriers that prevent us flowing back and forth along time’s continuum line.

Unconsciousness

Human consciousness divides our sense of time into past, future, and spanning between them, present time. Yet, the unconscious mind knows no such division. Each night when we dream our conscious mind, with its boundaries and distinctions, retires.  The unconscious mind now takes over and the spatial distinctions of the conscious mind with its focus on identity- me, not me; on location – here, not there; and of time – now, not then, all dissolve. In the unconscious mind, a memory of an event or an expectation of an event become inseparable from an actual event in the present. The conscious separation of time makes sense of the passage of time, but perhaps does not represent the variability of the flow of time itself.

I love how science fiction plays with the flow of past, present, and future. The most interesting example is in the recent film Interstellar. The film portrays the possibility of communicating between past, present, and future. Instead of past, present, and future arranged along a continuum line, they present as simultaneous dimensions sitting side by side, separated from each other as adjoining rooms are separated by walls within the same house. I am excited by the way science fiction seeks to articulate the very edge of the hard science of Quantum reality, because in the Newtonian universe, I feel trapped in the present, haunted by memories of a past and plagued by anxieties for a future, neither which I have any control over. The past influences me. The future makes me anxious. I can do nothing about either except to distract myself from resulting feelings of futility.

Carl Jung, alongside Sigmund Freud is one of the towering pioneers of 20th century psychology. One of his greatest contributions remains the concept of the collective unconscious. The collective unconscious  refers to that kaleidoscopic world of transgenerational memories that transcend our own individual memory and experience. Because the collective memory is neither yours nor mine, but ours, it shapes and controls all of us in ways that elude our conscious control. The worrying thing about the collective unconscious is that it subverts our society’s conscious systems of control.

A current example of the collective unconscious in operation can be seen in our policing of racial minorities. Many of us are feeling more and more uncomfortable as we are forced to recognise the extent to which the spectre of institutional racism, is not, as many white people like to imagine, a painful memory now safely contained in the past. We are coming to recognise that the racial violence of our past, despite our best conscious societal intentions, continues to stalk the streets of our present.

Supra-consciousness

Marcel Proust in his novel Swann’s Way (published 1913), describes the village church of his childhood’s Combray as: a building which occupied, so to speak, four dimensions of space—the name of the fourth being Time. When Proust recollects his experience of being in Combray church he has an experience of the normal divisions of waking consciousness being suspended within a dream-like state of free-flowing association. Some of these associations will undoubtedly belong within his own personal past experience – his personal biography. Yet, more significantly in Combray church, Proust becomes aware of recollections and associations that are not greater and more extensive than his own biographical experience. These belong within a transgenerational biography of the village, of the region, of France and a wider European spirituality.

In Combray church, Proust’s personal experience merges with a transgenerational experience that remains alive and accessible through Combray church acting as a portal, not to the unconscious, but to a supra-conscious awareness. Supra-consciousness is an attribute of the life of the Spirit in us.  The faculty of Supra-consciousness relies extensively on imagination and intuition. The supra-conscious frees us from the imprisonment of the present by opening us to future hopes and dreams without opening the floodgates of our disavowed past.

Getting to the point

My initial musings on the difference between conscious, unconscious, and supra-conscious awareness is a long-winded way of engaging with the Gospel for Advent II, taken from the opening chapter of Mark. What I like about Mark is that he get’s straight to the point.

Each Evangelist identifies Jesus by locating him within a particular supra-conscious vision. To make it seem less technical, I like the term trans-generational vision instead of supra-consciouness. Matthew and Luke identify Jesus and locate him within similar, yet different birth narratives. John offers a cosmological understanding of Jesus as the second person of the Trinity. Mark’s way of identifying and locating Jesus is to connect the adult Jesus with the figure of John the Baptizer.

John the Baptizer emerges as a crucial figure within the unfolding of a particular trans-generational vision that identifies Jesus with Isaiah’s suffering servant. In conscious time and space, John is most popularly identified as the cousin of Jesus. In the trans-generational vision of supra-conscious time, John emerges as Isaiah’s: voice of one crying in the wilderness: prepare the way of the lord, make his paths straight! 

The trans-generation vision anchored

Our Christian vision has a past stretching a long way back through the prophecies of Isaiah and the other great prophets of Israel, into the primal Genesis narratives of creation. This long, trans-generational vision becomes our Christian vision for a future hope when it finds its anchor point in the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus the Christ.

The trans-generational vision is this: that in Christ, God came to dwell within the conditions of the creation. John the Baptizer announces Christ. Christ announces the Kingdom of God. Yet, the Kingdom is clearly not realized all in one-fell-swoop, hence our experience of still waiting. The meaning of one-fell-swoop is to accomplish everything that needs to be done at the same time and in the same moment. The Kingdom is here, and yet, its full meaning only unfolds over time. Here is the confusing thing about time again. For we still are waiting for the coming of the Kingdom, which due to the paradox of our understanding of time, is already present. Alice Miller, another great psychologist of the 20th century said: we are who we have been waiting for. I want to paraphrase them into: we are already what we are still waiting for.

Our expectations, if they are Kingdom shaped, will seem to us to be improbable, even impossible because only a Kingdom vision provides the courage and motivation to move beyond the limitations of conscious imagination and the continued hidden power that our collective past has over us.

There is a 21st century chapter in the story of the unfolding of the Kingdom within which we have our crucial role to play. We dream our way forward guided by the expectations of the Kingdom unfolding through the degree to which we will allow ourselves to welcome it. To welcome the Kingdom means intuiting its presence. We do so when our actions confront the unconscious continuance of the violence and injustice of our collective past; when like Isaiah and John the baptizer through proclamation we plant the seeds of the future through our present time actions. Thus we find: new pathways to God’s peaceable Kingdom, one step and one breath at a time (Epperly). 

Paul Tillich reminds us that: if we wait in hope and patience, the power of that for which we wait is already effective within us. Those who wait in an ultimate sense are not that far from that for which they wait.  His words find an echo in those of Alice Miller: we are who we have been waiting for. Taking Miller’s words to heart let’s work to lay the foundations in our present time for the hopes and dreams which may only be realized in our future.

Taking Miller’s words to heart, we must work to lay the foundations in our present time for the hopes and dreams which may not be realized in our time, but through the onward march of the Christian trans-generational dream of the Kingdom of God.

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