In my recent blog entry Imaging Text I observed that as we move from the age of the printed word into the digital age it is images not words that matter. To be more exact its imaged words or word images that begin to matter more. No more powerful an word image is given to than when Jesus tells his disciples that they are now no longer servants but friends. The point of telling them this: is that my joy may be in you and your joy be made complete.
We don’t talk much about joy these days. We seem to prefer the term happiness. Happiness results from a set of propitious circumstances. So we need things to be a certain way for happiness to result. By contrast joy is not dependent on a propitious context. This is my experience at Trinity Cathedral. Fewer among us are happy with being in relationship with the Church. Most of us are hungry for relationship with God, especially if we fall within the 20-50 age group.
If younger Christians who are principally driven by a need to find spiritual meaning in lives largely disillusioned by the world of institutions then the only joy will suffice to keep them connected to institutional Christianity. Eugenia Price quoted by Macrina Wiederkehr in her lovely Office Book Seven Sacred Pauses describes joy as being God in the marrow of our bones.
Jesus tells us that we are no longer his servants but are now his friends. The implication of this is rather interesting. Most of us seem less satisfied with an older notion of being religious, i.e. good Church People and serving the needs of the institution. What more of us are in search of is the relationship of friendship with God that Jesus is talking about to his disciples. The upside is that we are no longer servants but friends. The downside is that we are no longer servants but friends.
Friends have choices that servants don’t have. One of those choices is to put love of God before love of Church. How will the Church survive when fewer and fewer feel committed to it, in its traditional form? This is an issue concerning the renewal of our understanding of stewardship. As an aside, at Trinity our attempt to renew our sense of stewardship results in the gathering of a small group we now call the Stewardship Ministry Team. We are currently working through Dwight Zschaile’s latest book People of the Way: Revisioning the Episcopal Church.
What does friendship with God look like? On Thursday evenings between 25 – 30 people gather for Eucharist, shared meal and an evening devoted to what Benedict calls the school of the Lord’s service. The shape of the evening models the elements of spiritual practice _worship, scriptural engagement, and common prayer- as understood in our Anglican Tradition. Our aim in Episcopal 201 is to explore and support one another as we develop patterns of daily spiritual practice. We are currently working in small groups using a model for Lectio Divina. We note the effect of the short scriptural text upon us and then attempt to connect this awareness with the possibility of an invitation from God concerning our situation over the next 3 – 5 days. We conclude with praying for one another. In this short prayer communication we offer to another valuable perspectives which they may have missed in what they were saying.
We come close to experiencing friendship with God when we encounter others similarly on the same path. The quality of this friendship does not need to be particularly intense. Yet, its quality communicates the feeling of joy that comes when soul connects to soul in an experience of mutual recognition.
This is the place to begin. Let’s trust that in due course other more temporal and corporeal priorities characteristic of loyal servants will emerge into our re-centered experience of ourselves as joy-filled friends of God.
In early February of this year I was invited to preach at St Mark’s Cathedral, Minneapolis. My visit also coincided with a seminar day being given my Diana Butler-Bass a well known writer on contemporary matters affecting the present day Church and the future of Christianity.
Ms Butler-Basse referred to the Gallup Poles on religious observance. The of the decade from 1999-2009 reveal over this 10 year period from 1999-2009 a marked shift in the way Christians identify themselves in terms of their self description as religious or spiritual.
In 1999 60% of those polled identified themselves as religious but not spiritual. Whereas only around 20% of people identified as spiritual but not religious. A smaller number under 10% identified as religious and spiritual.
By 2009 only around 10% identified as religious but not spiritual. Around the same proportion as in 1999 identified as spiritual but not religious. The biggest change was the those identifying as spiritual and religious which rose from 10% to 50%.
What is implied by this shift? In John15 Jesus says: I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.
Prevalent among main-line Christians even as late as 1999 was the self image of being good servants of the Church. They identified as members of the institution and served it generously through talents, time, and money. Yet, ask them if they felt a personal relationship with God, were they spiritual, they generally answered no. Spirituality was something best left to the clergy.
Looking around the community I serve at Trinity Cathedral I can clearly see the nature of this shift. While older members continue to serve the institution of the Church with dedication to tasks that need to be done, newer members are cautious about becoming what one X’er referred to as the $ sign in the pew. At Trinity we are currently experiencing a blossoming of growth. On this coming Sunday, the Sunday after the Ascension no less, the Bishop will confirm, or receive, or reaffirm some 62 people into communion with the catholic faith. A good number of these are young people. Yet, well over half are adults, some 40 or so having recently passed through our Episcopal 101 preparation.
Many of these relative newcomers are not like our traditional Episcopal Church people profile. They tend to be younger than the average age of Episcopalians. They are not our traditional good servant material. They are not religious and are wary of becoming religious. They are predominantly spiritual seekers. Some are new to Christianity. Some escaping other traditions that no longer serve them well. All are seeking an encounter with Historic Christianity. A Christianity characterized by a depth of liturgical expression, a faithfulness to the historic diversity of Catholic Christianity exemplified in the Anglican Tradition, and a generous Christianity seeking to bring the deep wells of Christian spirituality into informed dialogue with the confusions and uncertainties of life in 21st century America.
Other more convicted Christians call the Episcopal Church ‘that easy religion’. A more acurate description is that we are a Church that refuses to offer easy answers to complex questions. And so those who are seeking, yet, not wanting to be mollified with easy answers that either fail to justice to the integrity of their search or actually do violence to that search, continue to come.
Back to John15 and Jesus’ reference to servants no-longer but friends. More in my next post.
To use one of Jesus’ favorite preaching techniques, i.e. hyperbole, the art of overstatement, I feel that if all we had was John 15 then we would have enough to form the basis of Christian Community. THis is community based on the powerful images of the vine and its branches and the commandment to love one another.
Our society is blighted by the demise of community centered upon the doctrine and experience of the common good. The image of the vine and its branches offered by Jesus is a powerful reminder that communities do not fare well when they lose contact with complexity theory notions of interdependence and interconnection. The recent success of book and now the film The Hunger Games bears directly on this point. The horror of the society of Panem is speaking to us about our own society.
In the central section of John 15, Jesus offers us a succession of images beginning with: as the father as loved me so I love you, abide in my love. The image here is that of the mirror. The love expressed by God for Jesus is mirrored in the expression of Jesus’ love for us. The Divine interplay of loving and being loved is likewise mirrored among us through God’s invitation announced by Jesus.
The most profound human experience of mirroring is that which takes place between mother and infant. Maybe it is for this reason that the central verses of John 15 are appointed for Mother’s Day, the second Sunday in May.
My first training in psychotherapy was in the school of Object Relations Theory. This most British branch of Psychoanalysis replaces the classical Freudian concept that human beings are driven by their instinct for gratification with a belief that human beings are fundamentally object seeking. Object seeking is a particular psychological way of saying we are driven by a need to express and receive love.
The first object for the infant is the mother. This is an experience for the infant of resting-in, or of being loved. The infant rests-in the experience of the softness of mother’s touch, the sound of her voice, the way she smells. However, principally the infant rests-in the gaze of the mother’s eyes. In mother’s eyes the infant experiences itself in the state of abiding or resting-in in love.
Abiding in love is a passive experience of just being loved. It is not an active experience of seeking love or loving. Abiding – resting-in being loved must come before the act of loving. Loving only becomes possible when we have first experienced abiding, or resting-in, love. Only then are we formed enough by being loved to express love in loving others. As Jesus is loved so he loves and this then extends into the human community.
The celebration of Mother’s Day needs to be more than a Hallmark sentimentality or a patriotic reference to motherhood and apple pie. Gendered mother’s are the conventional symbol of mothering. But mothering is not confined to gendered mothers. Mothering is essentially an offering of love through the way we behold one another in love. This applies as much to lovers of any kind as it does to mother and child.
Our lives have been enriched by many experiences of resting-in being loved. I am suggesting that mothering transcends gendered mothers. Mothering is inherent to all human beings and is present in many different kinds of human relationships. What links the different contexts within which mothering occurs is that all mothering is an expression of God’s way of loving.
God is best imaged as the Trinitarian Community of lovers loving and being loved. Jesus’ words haunt us: as the father as loved me so I love you, abide in my love. Mothering is an expression of Divine love. So let’s abide, i.e. rest-in the experience of being loved. This is the gift we not only celebrate on Mother’s Day but which is given and received everyday.
Since the invention of the printing press words have overtaken images as the coinage for understanding our relationship with God. As we move further into the digital age once again words are giving way to images. It is no longer enough for the preacher to offer his or her listeners an exegeses of text based on a study of the meaning of the words. In the digital age as our modes of communication become increasingly image based preachers need to construct mental images from the words of the text. This is how Jesus taught and how spirituality communicated prior to the dominance of text.
John 15 has formed the content for the proclamation of the Gospel over the previous two Sundays. It is image rich and this blog entry is the first of several entries in which I will be imaging the text of John 15.