The Problem with Transcendence

I’ve been to the mountaintop.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

The Mountaintop is an Illusion

Joy is an experience of connection, communion, presence, and grace within the ordinariness of our daily experience. Yet, paradoxically, joy is also found in moments of great suffering. Meg Wheatley, a spiritual writer and change consultant with an acute eye to the paradoxical nature of our contemporary experience notes that it is in pursuit of happiness that we estrange ourselves from joy.

She speaks of joy being the same as sadness for both states embrace us with an energy that is beyond the physical. Laughing or crying – it doesn’t matter. This strikes us as paradoxical. We might doubt the truth of the statement until we realize that joy and sadness are both states of self-transcendence. Both open us to a level of experience that takes us beyond the tyranny of the preoccupied self – the self that is preoccupied with itself, confined within a state of profound disenchantment.

Faced with a birth, a wedding, an anniversary – we are captivated by joy. In the face of sickness, a death, a disaster, a tragedy of personal or epic proportions, sorrow and sadness capture us as we suffer with, console, and love one another.

We have two stories of mountaintop experience in the readings for the last Sunday before Lent. These are stories of transcendent – or to use Maslow’s term, peak experience. Peak experience is problematic. The spatial image of the mountain summit works in some ways for us, yet, it feeds an assumption that it’s only there that self-transcendent experiences such as joy can be found. Under this illusion we will miss the more ordinary and everyday places where true joy is – by chance – encountered.

The image of the mountain top is an image of an encounter with God that ordinarily feels so out of our reach. However, it’s not altitude that separates us from a life-enhancing encounter with the living God, but a dogged refusal to let go of the self’s preoccupation with itself. Transcendent experiences are not found by climbing mountains but in experiences like joy and sadness – ordinary everyday experiences that take us beyond our disillusioned or disenchanted selves into here and now experiences of self-transcendence.

The Mountaintop is a place of concealment

The image of the mountaintop is a place concealed in thick cloud. What comes to be known there cannot be spoken about. On the mountaintop Peter, James, and John experience an epiphany of Jesus clothed in his divinity as the Christ. This is a fleeting experience, no sooner glimpsed than it is gone – forever eluding their desire to capture and contain it. Then the disciples must negotiate the even more perilous path down the mountain carrying the experience. They must carry the remembrance of what they have seen and yet, at the same time, practice a kind of forgetting. We can’t pursue self-transcendence. We need to forget about it and only then, through experiences like joy and suffering, self-transcendence finds us.

The Mountaintop and the contemporary imagination

Events on the mount of the Transfiguration are only at a midpoint in the gospel narrative. After the Transfiguration, Jesus turns his face to Jerusalem and the hard road to his Passion. It seems that in the spiritual life peak experience is only a means to, and not an end in itself.

As they were coming down the mountain Jesus ordered them, “tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead”.

Today we do not look for God in material space-time. The acceptance by past generations, whose enchantment shaped expectations of encountering God in material objects and places is now firmly rejected by most of us as superstition. Nevertheless, the question is not does a separate spiritual dimension still exist for the modern imagination, but where and how does it exist for the modern mind, mired in a state of disenchantment?

Spatial references to up and down don’t work in the same way for us. For us, God no longer inhabits the mountaintop. Heaven is no longer imagined as up there, or not-heaven down below. Yet, the metaphors of in and out do work for us. For a modern imagination, the spiritual realm is best conceived of as a parallel dimension that interpenetrates with our experience in space-time.

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said he’d been to the mountaintop, no one assumed he had actually climbed a mountain. The mountaintop now becomes the metaphor for the possibility of a different order of experience, one that challenges our acceptance of the absence of the spiritual – in lives given over to a preoccupation with our small self.

Our God is no longer the Hebrew God who inhabits mountaintops and sacred places, who is physically present in climate events – flood and drought, wind and fire. We no longer look for God on the physical mountaintop in quite the same way as our Biblical ancestors did, because we now must look within where we discover God emotionally and experientially available to us.

The Mountaintop as paradox

The paradox is that while we reject enchantment as superstition, no generation craves with greater intensity a desire of self-transcendence than we do. Magical realism, heroic superhuman sagas abound in Hollywood’s works. Opioids, marketed as a solution for physical pain establish a hold on society as a solution to the increasing levels of our spiritual pain.

Meg Wheatley speaks of joy as an example of a transcendent experience because joy is able to encompass both delight and sadness. Joy is not happiness, which is a very one-sided experience. Happiness is easily destroyed because it is the product of self-preoccupation. Joy radiates outwards, opening new pathways for interconnection and relief from self-preoccupation.

So here is the clue. For us today, transcendence is found in the web of interconnectedness with one another. God inhabits the relational spaces between us as well as the internal spaces of the heart -mind-spirit connection. We transcend the limited confines of self not into the emptiness of bliss, but into the joy of being fully present for one another. Wheatley quotes from the great 19th-century Bengali poet and spiritual teacher, Rabindranath Tagore:

I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.

Rabindranath Tagore

The Transfiguration story is a halfway point in Matthew’s account of the life and times of Jesus. It marks the transition point from his preaching and teaching in the Galilean countryside to his final and eventful journey to Jerusalem.

The Visit of the Magi and the Transfiguration bookend the Epiphany season. From here on, we move into a different section of the spiritual journey. The landscape becomes rocky and desert-like as we journey down the mountain into the Lent of our lives.

Learning from Experience

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 & Matthew 5:21-37

In the wide and deep sweep of history separating Moses from Jesus – we can see a clear development in human understanding of God – moving always in the direction of greater sophistication. In his book God: A Biography, Jack Miles recounts the evolution of God’s character – as seen as the protagonist in the religious story of Israel.  The book’s central structure is that God’s character develops progressively within the narrative. Miles draws from the Biblical record to deduce information about God’s nature and motivation. His book won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography.

Miles presents God as a figure evolving into a greater sophistication of character through the long and tumultuous relationship with humanity – as represented by Israel. The capacity to seemingly learn from experience, esp. mistakes, is the key quality that jumps out from Miles’ somewhat startling portrayal of God.

The capacity to learn from our experience, esp. our mistakes, is the primary way that we humans continue to evolve in the direction of greater psycho-socio-spiritual complexity. In short, learning is fundamental to our survival.

Bracketing for a moment our traditional theological anxieties resulting from Miles’ portrayal of God as a learning God, we might at least hypothetically embrace the idea that God is also capable of learning from experience.  Put another way, maybe that’s why humanity is imbued with this capacity of learning from experience because we are made in the image of a God who also learns and grows through experience, and in particular through learning from mistakes.

The Biblical story of God’s relationship with humanity represented by Israel is full of instances where God changes his mind and is even convinced by human beings like Moses to repeatedly change his mind. God acts, often precipitously, only to on reflection, regret impulsive action. God is frequently convinced to moderate his genocidal impulses, which alarmingly in the earlier sections of the story, seem to be God’s default response in the face of human folly and resistance.

But let me quell a possible growing anxiety in portraying God as anything but omnipotent and unchanging, omniscient and all knowing. We might be more comfortable with saying it’s not God who really changes but human understanding of God that deepens and grows over historical time. Either way, the God who emerges in relationship with Moses is both consistent with and yet also different from the God whom Jesus portrays. In the broad and deep sweep of history separating Moses and Jesus, Jewish understanding of God had continued its evolution in religious consciousness in the direction of greater complexity.

In Deuteronomy 30:15-20 we hear Moses’ dramatic ultimatum: I call upon heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God.

This is a call to make choices, which can be either life enhancing or death dealing. The Deuteronomists conceived of the choice for life as being faithful to and acting upon God’s commandments given to Moses – given primarily to ensure the just governing of society. For contemporary Judaism, Torah observance remains the way to contribute to the building up of society through performing the actions that lead to making the world a better place.

By the 1st-century of the Common Era – the time of Jesus – an extensive shift had occurred in the evolution from a Hebrew to a Jewish religious consciousness.

The Hebrew God of Moses inhabited the natural world of mountain tops and sacred places. This God controlled the elements – reigning down either blessing or punishment.

By the 1st-century the Jewish experience was of God inhabiting the subjective space within human consciousness. This is not a God of mountain tops but of the mind and heart. It is into this religious evolution that Jesus of Nazareth emerges onto the world stage.

In Matthew chapter 5 in his Sermon on the Mount Jesus refers his listeners back to the ancient Hebrew understanding of God’s commandments. He begins and then repeats the phrase: You have heard that it was said to those of ancient time. This is his springboard into a reframing of Jewish religious practice. Jesus reframes an evolving Jewish inner consciousness of God taking it to a new level.

Many of us would probably prefer to remain ancient Hebrews in our orientation to the requirements of the religious life. This accounts for the popularity in the growth of Christian Fundamentalism. Give us a good external commandment we can choose to follow or not as the case may be, and we at least will know where we are.

In contrast, what Jesus is teaching is frightening in its seeming complexity let alone its impossibility. For who among us exercises the degree of self-control over our thoughts and intentions, our impulses and motivations, let alone our fantasies which Jesus seems to require of us? It is no longer a matter of refraining from unethical actions, we now must harbor only virtuous intentions; without which despite leading outwardly upright and ethical lives, we all remain serial murderers and adulterers in our hearts.

The penalty for non-virtuous thoughts and impulses, even if firmly under our self-control, is astonishingly severe indeed!

Jesus issues and invitation to pay attention to a subjective experience of God dwelling amongst the unruly passions of the human heart. I imagine his disciples found this as unnerving as we do. But one thing is clear, Jesus has our attention!

In this difficult teaching Jesus is reminding us that spiritual contamination comes not from the outside but already resides within of us. In Matthew 15, Jesus tells his disciples that we are not defiled by what goes into the body. The stuff we should worry about is what comes out of the human heart.

Jesus ushers in the dawning of a new religious age of the inbreaking of God’s Kingdom. No longer camouflaged by an externalized morality of rules and obligations, religious observance now requires a subjective examination of the projections of the hardness of the human heart. Moral and ethical action is good, but right intention is better. Right belief is one thing, but right relationship is even better. This is the subject of Jesus’ teaching and it represents the big leap for humanity into a new kind of relationship with God.

2016-20 will be remembered as when America abandoned the traditional fig leaf of religious and moral hypocrisy. As long as anyone can remember the maintenance of outward moral and ethical fig leaf concealed the inner intentions of our hearts. Lapses in moral and ethical behavior – though frequent and numerous still only proved the rule. Hypocrisy defined as the gap between outward action and inner intention was the name of much of the game.

Now the fig leaf has been cast aside. We stand before one another stark naked with the hardness of our hearts on full display. The murderous bile that flows from us into every platform of social media that rewards our envy and dishonesty. Aided and abetted by Net anonymity – the unregulated narcissism of the human heart is fully displayed for all to see. We seem to no longer know shame. Online pornography assuages our baser impulses and desires – and we need not move from the privacy of our armchair or sofa.

Even the fig leaf of virtuous government is now under pressure from the office holder of the presidency – abetted by a congress whose only God is the worship of power and a judiciary whose increasing focus is the protection of proprietary and sectional interests over the dictates of social justice.

If Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount today these would be the examples he would draw from. So, does he have our attention yet?

Moses warned the Israelites against making the choices of death that would result in them not living long in the land God was giving them. Our continued and unchecked landslide into environmental catastrophe means that our children and their children may not live long in the land either. Jesus understood that the choice for death is ever present within our hearts.

Bad as things are, let’s not yet abandon hope. Remember that like God, our capacity to learn from experience, esp. our mistakes is the fundamental ingredient necessary for our survival.

Lips & Lives, Truth & Lies Salt & Light Etc: Mtt. 5, Is. 58

The Prayer of General Thanksgiving in the Book of Common Prayer is recited at the end of the offices of Morning and Evening Prayer. You will recall I wrote about the offices in the E-News this past week. Towards the end in the General Thanksgiving come the lines:

And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days.

Living the Christian life is not a matter of confessing lips as much as it’s a matter of active lives. Living in God’s service is always more than the words we say. It’s the actions we take; the bread we break.

We are living through a time when the discrepancy between words and actions has never been greater. We are devastated by the fracturing of words from actions. Words trump action never taken. Action trumps lies concealing evil action.

But the person on the street says it’s no big deal because who cares about truth these days?

Truth has become a completely subjective concept. If I say black is white, then it is. If I assert my lie as truth and reject another’s truth as a lie – a hoax, then who’s to seriously contradict me? The objective evidence of the physical world around us is now dismissed as mere hoax.

Well the short answer to who cares is that God cares. But if that’s too remote a concern for you, then the answer is that I care, you care, we care. Is that good enough?

Jesus said be salty but beware of losing your saltiness.

Did you know that the interesting thing about salt is that it can’t lose its salinity unless the chemical bond between sodium and chlorine is broken. As one of the most stable of compounds, only an electric charge is able to loosen the NaCl molecule. Thus, when salt is dissolved in water it enjoys a greater volume as it is released from crystal form, but it remains essentially salt in all its savory-ness.

In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount Jesus’ tell his disciples: you are the salt of the earth. This has found its way into our common language. When we describe someone as the salt of the earth, we are recognizing their value as a person who expresses a no nonsense wholesomeness; someone whose life of fruitful action, of effective service, is enviable.

Jesus said: but if salt loses its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything and is thrown out and trampled underfoot. Salt losing its salinity? Jesus clearly had been asleep in his elementary chemistry classes?

Jesus would have observed how salt was collected from saltpans. When dried out the substance in which the salt was embedded was raked into mounds still containing a lot of impurities. While salt as sodium chloride can’t be dissolved it can be leached out. Heavy rain would leach the sodium chloride out of surface layers of the salt mounds – leaving the residue of impurities that were essentially tasteless. Like fine sand, it was good only as material to loosely gravel a pathway where it would be trampled underfoot.

Jesus had a habit of taking ordinary things to reveal spiritual truth. So, he takes salt – something crucially important in everyday life as a savory and a preservative for food. As well as a fixing for dying cloth, salt was also a staple commodity in commercial transaction – Roman soldiers were often paid in salt in lieu of coin.

The leaching of salt from the surface of the salt mound becomes an evocative metaphor for a loss of spiritual effectiveness.

When our lips are out of sync with our lives; our words are severed from our actions – we resemble the residue at the top of the salt mound -its saltiness leached out; fine sand useful only as material to pave the path.

Where one metaphor was good, for Jesus, two were better. Like the salt mounds after heavy rain, when our saltiness is leached out of us – the powerful search light of truth becomes hidden in us and we easily become complicit in narratives of lies and misinformation.

You are the light of the world, Jesus reminds us. A city on a hill cannot be hid. So let your light shine forth that others may find their way to God through you.

The shining city on a hill that cannot be hid has been an abiding metaphor in the American imagination. However, there’s another metaphor in the American imagination, that of Gotham City, a city shrouded in darkness. A city where the expediencies of power extinguish the light of truth.  

What is the way out of our current state of civic and moral corruption? Let’s turn to the lighthouse of Holy Scripture.

The prophet Isaiah confronts the people of Israel’s collective image of themselves as a faithful worshiping community – an ancient city (literally) built on Zion’s hill. Believing themselves faithful they nevertheless bitterly complained that God did not reward their scrupulous observances.

God responds:

Look, you can bow your head like a bulrush and lie in sackcloth and ashes all you want but you serve your own interest on the fast day and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. 

God’s response to Israel’s complaint is to point out that words severed from moral action is ritual observance without the saltiness of social action.  That Zion, no longer a shining city on a hill had become a city shrouded in Gotham-like darkness. Israel’s worship expressed neither the saltiness of a social conscience nor the commitment to the searchlight of truth. The result was connivance with the deceptions of lies and the actions of oppression.  

In worship, God addresses us as a community so that community becomes the vehicle for saltiness in action and the search light of truth. Communal action is always social in nature.

We need to note that it is to a whole people Isaiah speaks. Likewise, it is to the community of the disciples Jesus speaks. The you addressed by both Isaiah and Jesus is the collective you. Worship is always communal. Worship bears fruit in communal action. In worship, God addresses us as a community so that the community becomes a vehicle for saltiness in action and the search light of truth.

Jesus proclaims that he will not take one jot away from the Law of the Lord given to Israel until the fulfilment of God’s unfinished business is completed.

The Law of the Lord, whether expressed as Jewish Torah faithfulness or Christian Gospel fruitfulness – it is the same thing.

Observance of living Torah and commitment to Gospel action both express God’s expectation for the way we should govern our life together; an expectation to: Do Justice, Love Kindness, and Walk humbly with God. 

So let us with urgency commit ourselves as we pray

…. that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days.

Be Careful What You Wait For

Post image is Simeon-and-Jesus-in-the-Temple-Rembrandt-harmenszoon-van-rijn-.jpg

Feast of the Presentation, The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs       Luke 2:22-40, 2 February 2020                                       

Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed– and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus, which we celebrate today, is based on Luke’s account of Jesus’ parents doing what good, faithful Jewish parents did for their firstborn sons: They brought him to the Temple for the ritual of the Redemption of the Firstborn. Since the first male child of a Jewish family, according to Torah, was to be “designated as holy”, that is, predestined to serve as a priest, the family would “redeem” him, or effectively buy him back from that duty.

So Mary and Joseph made the 64-mile journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem to fulfill their religious obligation.

Did they have any idea what awaited them in the Temple?

Because the Spirit was at work in Jerusalem. She came to an old man, righteous and devout, whose entire life had been devoted to waiting for the coming Messiah—“looking forward to the consolation of Israel.” Biblical storyteller Richard Swanson writes that the Greek for “looking forward” here is better translated as “receiving forward”—not merely anticipation, but a metaphorically leaning, stretching; reaching out, as if to grasp a future that has been desperately yearned for and is now just at his fingertips.  This, Simeon’s waiting, says Swanson, “…carries the metaphoric hint of being stretched tight, stretched even to the breaking point, like a string on a guitar, tightened and tightened and tightened yet some more, until finally it is about to snap.”

It is into this waiting, reaching, stretching that the Spirit comes.

And rests.

What did Simeon expect to see when the Spirit urged him toward the Temple? If he knew his Isaiah, and we can safely assume that he did, he would have expected a male child: “Unto us a child is born…a son is given…and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Was Simeon surprised, then, to see a poor couple, dusty and tired from their journey, carrying a six-week-old bundle and a paltry two doves for the ritual sacrifice? The parents of the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, unable to afford a lamb for an offering—what must have gone through his head?

Apparently only love. Only joy. Only confirmation of fulfillment of a life of waiting. Only the desire to reach out and carefully take the baby in old arms that had been empty for so long.

Because he had given his life to waiting for this child.

“Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised; For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior… “I have kept watch. Now I can die in peace.”

Both Simeon and Anna knew something about waiting. They may not always have waited patiently, but they did wait faithfully.

We have heard a lot this past Advent about waiting—about knowing that the act of waiting hopefully is part of making the future Dream of God a reality in the present. So, how we wait is to wait in hope. But what is the cost of what we wait for? That is the question that Simeon and Anna prompt us to ponder.

Waiting can be complicated. On the one hand there is the relatively straightforward wait against clock and calendar, waiting for noon lunchtime or graduation day in May or June. These are set objectives—clear and finite. But there is also the indefinite side of waiting, when what we are waiting for isn’t marked by alerts on our computers and mobile devices. This kind of waiting affects the way in which we wait, and what it requires of us. Test results. Healing. Justice. The other shoe to drop.  We wait with dread, anticipation, anxiety, hope—and it requires our energy, our focus, our time, our sweat, and sometimes even our safety.

Waiting costs. And depending on what we are waiting for, the cost will vary.

So be careful what you wait for.

Did Anna know the cost of what she waited for? It isn’t clear. Yes, she was a prophet, but the role of prophets is not always to predict the future but to speak truth to power. Anna’s joyful news about the redemption of Jerusalem, spoken excitedly to everyone in the Temple, was a triumphant declaration to all with ears to hear that change was coming, thanks be to God.

But she was eighty-four years old. Her waiting would not see Jesus arrested, tortured, condemned and crucified. How might her triumph be tempered had she known what would come before his ultimate victory? Waiting is complicated—would she be prepared for the cost of discipleship?

Simeon doesn’t speak to the crowd like Anna does. He speaks more intimately to the little family in front of him. To Mary he confides that a sword will pierce her soul, a prophecy that is short on detail and laden with dreadful portent. He also speaks of the falling and rising of many in Israel—notice he doesn’t say rising and falling. Rising and falling is what happens to principalities and powers. Falling and rising is what happens to co-creators of the Dream of God—to those who know the cost of what they await.

Is it any wonder that Mary and Joseph were amazed at this encounter? Even with all that had happened in the life of this little family from the beginning, this would rank as momentous news. Yet this is the first time in the Gospels where Mary has been directly told that the future of the child now cradled in Simeon’s arms would bring her pain–that bearing the Promised One of God would cost her dearly.

And yet she bore his words as Mary always did—taking and pondering these things in her heart as she and Joseph completed their mitzvah and made the long trip back to Nazareth, where they would continue doing what parents do—raising their child to become strong and filled with wisdom, yet from the moment of their encounter with Simeon waiting for the life of their precious son to unfold, come what may.

Be careful what you wait for. What are we waiting for? And what will it ask of us? An answer, and the Good News, lies in Simeon’s outstretched arms. The baby. There is something about babies.

We’re suckers for them. We are virtually guaranteed to turn into sentimental puddles in the presence of an infant, and if you don’t believe me, just wait until Louis Clifton Schoch’s baptism next week.

We are hard-wired to fall in love with babies. It’s one of the ways that nature has equipped us to keep the species going. Think of the transformation that takes place: When we make a commitment to a child either by birth, adoption, or baptism, we willingly give away a large measure of our independence. We accept a call to give our lives to these helpless creatures—to nurture, cherish and protect them. And no matter how old they grow we will be forever imprinted with the image of them as creatures fresh from God.

So is it any surprise that God would come to us in an incarnation that elicits this response? Yes, Isaiah declared that the child would be named Mighty God, Everlasting Father. But, as Simeon discovered, this Messiah defies all expectation of grandeur and power. Instead this Incarnation—God With Us–challenges us to dig deep to the spark that lights us all—love. He calls forth from us the hard-wired willingness to pay the cost of what we await; to dedicate ourselves to the nurturing and protection of the beloved children of God.

Our celebration of the Presentation acts as a reminder of something we are prone to forget; that the cost of what we await in the Messiah, past, present, and future, is the extension of our protective, nurturing, compassionate love to all of the vulnerable—the easily forgotten victims of poverty, injustice, war, complacency and complicity. The cost of what we await is our discipleship—proclaiming the Good News not only with our lips but in our lives by giving up our selves to God’s service for the healing of this world.

What is the cost of what we wait for? Only, as with Simeon and Anna, our entire lives.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Nowhere in the Bible does God say that God wants only half of our heart. God calls for all of it.

And God is waiting. Amen.

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