Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Religion is Connecting: Part 7

In an earlier piece about barnacles and their clinging, I wrote about them as examples of connections that were not mutually beneficial to both parties.  I used them as metaphors for being satisfied with merely surviving.

In writing I came close to saying something about addiction and how it is the frequent result of that kind of clinging.  You could just as much say that addiction is the cause.

Early biblical writers criticized the idolators for "clinging to their idols." Jonah 2:8 and Psalm 31:6 but what made the idols idols was they were not the one true God.  So clinging was about the only action available when all you had are idols, substitute gods.

Many of you have heard me say that "addiction is a natural response to a life lived on substitutes." Here's what I mean: when we are seeking some sort of satisfaction, attention, affection, or nourishment; really anything that can be a source of comfort or meaning, anything that will make the pain go away or meet a need we often stop at the next best thing.

And the substitute is never good enough.  It never finally or fully satisfies.  But we know where it can be found.  We can repeat those steps.  And for a minute, a night, a season, a life we can forget our hunger, our hurt, our shame, our weakness, our brokenness.  And when the dose is gone we find another.  In many cases it just gets worse and worse because second best is never good enough.

Sadly this describes so much of our lives, all of our lives and not just the lives of those we can recognize as addicted but also those whose lives have a kind of permission to settle.

Let me propose that it is because we are all addicts of one kind or another.  We are all in some way seeking to satisfy ourselves and ending up with second best answers to the questions and troubles of our lives.

Please don't read me as a cynic or pessimist.  There is still the one true God who has shown a love for us like no other.  Who has done everything we need to break our addictions, to end our clinging, to set us free.

It is worth admitting that not all bear the same blame or responsibility for their addictions.  If you are really hungry and you can't find enough to eat, your addiction is not all your fault.  If you are lonely or ashamed and struggle to find true love you may not even know why.  There are all kinds of reasons our hopes won't always take us all the way.

A really sad thing about this addiction epidemic is that so many of us don't know even we are addicted.  We must think that this second-best-ness of life is the way its supposed to be.  We say things like, "get it while you can."

Why else do we allow greed -- an addiction to the power of money -- and why do we tolerate the rhetoric and behavior of our current political culture except for our own thrilling?  Why do we go from relationship to relationship?  Why do we make church into a place we go and not a people we are called to become?

But in every case where someone has settled or been caught or trapped in an addiction there is a way out and because of what God has done in Jesus' life, death and resurrection that way is with every other person in the world.

Thank God for those fellow addicts who are able to break away even if only for a minute.  Especially when their cries "no more!" wake us up to our own enslavements.  And thank God, especially for the people we love that there is more to life than accepting our second bests.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Religion is to be Connected: Part 6

We are a sacramental people.  We make offerings to God of the stuff in our lives - bread and wine, water, oil, and all sorts and conditions of people.  Then we do this audacious thing of claiming that God has changed those very things we have just presented into something else.

In Holy Eucharist bread and wine become Christ's body and blood; we baptize and a human believer becomes a member of Christ's body, the church; a man and women make their vows to each other and we pronounce them husband and wife.  If nothing else the stuff we present is us. 

The beauty and significance of these and the other sacraments engages us so that we have even expanded the ways in which we make offerings of ourselves and pronounce those vowing as married regardless of their biology.  

Most of what we do when behaving sacramentally relies on an understanding of God and God's grace.  I've already called it audacious but it is also hopeful, honest, risky and intentional.  

We are crazy but faithful when we count on God to make a difference.  But the basic promise "to be with us" that God makes and keeps in the person of Jesus of Nazareth can't be real AND inert at the same time.

So when we are worshipping in baptism, eucharist, confirmation, marriage, ordination, extreme unction and reconciliation we are trusting God and as far as the world can tell foolishly thrusting ourselves into the promise of God's life changing presence.

For many that is enough.  Many of us are glad to be deemed worthy, to receive the elements, to be married, ordained and in the end made right with God.  Even I have presented this series with a title that is also about being connected.

It is worth it for us to consider that the very same condition that makes it so that God's presence changes things -- that Jesus of Nazareth can't be real AND inert at the same time -- should be the automatic next step in our sacramental lives as well.  That is to say that religion is connecting not just being connected.  

Early arguments about the bread and wine once blessed and broken that used a definition like transubstantiation very often left those asking good questions about "what difference it makes" thinking that Holy Communion did more to the bread and wine than it did to those taking, blessing, breaking, and sharing.  

If religion is just as much connecting then our sacramental living is just as much or more doing than being: more offering, blessing, breaking and sharing continuously than mere status changes to be celebrated, certified, and protected.  

So let me revise my title: "Religion is to be Connecting" and let's see what difference it makes. 



Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Religion is to be Connected: Part 5

Church going is loaded with opportunities to connect.  We especially connect to each other.  Each person we see regularly becomes a way for a connection that offers assurance and comfort.

These connections matter so much we even attend to the habits and comforts of those around us.

Think about those Sundays when your friends are NOT in their usual seats.  Or even worse when your friend's seat is taken by someone else.

Our habits: where we sit, with whom we sit, how we come and go are formed as we connect and as we learn to respect and care for those connections.  The formation of our habits is an incremental process that like a feedback loop promotes or not our connections.

Sadly for many of us the process eventually stops and we settle into routines that feel more like surviving than thriving. So it is worth it to consider that some of our connections may be calling us to unfamiliar places and people.

Most of us seldom move outside our "comfort zones" by our own choosing.  Instead we are made to go when something shocks or constrains us to go: the death of a loved one whose seat is then always empty, or in a milder way the change of a liturgical practice.

Remember when the altar was tucked against the wall?  Or think of how many of us are yearning for a return to the kneeling we do outside of the Easter season.

For those who have lived through these sorts of "dis-connections" we all could have a new appreciation for our comfort zones.  We know to enjoy them but we can also learn to trust them as we come and go.  As we grow our comfort zones can change from places to settle and stay and become more like rest stops on a long journey.

Most of you know that I have joked about telling confirmands that as soon as the Bishop lays hands on them they are eligible to pick their permanent seat in church so that God no longer has to go looking for them.  So let's not forget that our connections and their comfort zones may not be easily recognizable as such and may be hard to share with a stranger.

I guess now I need a joke about how trusting AND movement can help our connections and even help our sharing of our comfort zones.

There is one about churchy types taking a friend of another denomination fishing and amazing the friend with what appears to be walking on the water?  Isn't the punchline something about knowing where the rocks are?

That's a start but all of this stuff about comfort and connection really boils down to being intentional about change and adaptation, about trust and vulnerability, and about how the God to whom we hope to connect already knows where the rocks are.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Religion is to be connected: Part 4

The kayak that I've been paddling the Oconee was used when I bought it.  The hull was not badly damaged but it was scratched.  It’s hard to paddle anywhere in this part of the world and not scrape a gritty shoal or bump a boulder every now and then.

I am not worried about my recreation on the river.  It is exactly that, recreation not competition and so I do not require a pristine streamline to make my way with high efficiency.  Still I've thought about the hull slipping through the silty runoff into the lake to our east.

When I lived in tidewater Virginia there always be a boat or two lifted out of the Rappahannock at the nearby marinas so the hulls could be cleaned of the barnacles that had attached in those brackish river waters and the even saltier waters of the Chesapeake and Atlantic.

One might be inclined to see some virtue in the clinging of those accreted crustaceans.  "Oh that we could hang to God as fervently."  "Oh that our faith were as constant as the cement they secrete."  "Crafty little creatures to make their lives so simple."

But it is worth being reminded that not all connections are healthy for the "connected." There is only a less than ideal benefit for one part in those connections and the other just suffers. Barnacles are carried through the water from which they feed but the boat's hull is slowed by the loss of its streamline.

You might want to say, "Take it easy FrDann, they're just barnacles."  But the way these varmints connect can be a caution to us all in our lives of faith.  Our relationship, our connection to God always risks our being the barnacle.

We are the dependent ones, we have needs that we most often meet at the expense of others, we are limited by our self-image, our fears, our lack of trust and so we attach in ways that put others at risk.  We attach in ways that seldom go beyond survival.

I'll admit to failing to "give it all to God" on most of those occasions when that felt like the right or the good thing to do.  I always have found some compromise so that I can stick around and at least look faithful.

I'm sure God appreciates the attention but I'm just as sure God intends more in our relationship than clinging.   The connection God has won for us calls for something other than my resolve or my strength or even my ingenuity.  The connection God has won for us calls us to trust and not to cling.

We say "Alleluia, Christ is risen!" because our connection is perfected for us, not preserved by us.  God raised Jesus from the dead after he -- with trust in God -- let go.

The model for us is not Jesus hanging in there to avoid dying like a barnacle but his trusting in the One who knows us and has promised us to be there when we – obedient unto death -- do our own letting go.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Religion is to be Connected: Part 3

The Gospels are not the same.  Even the ones that look so much alike and are thus called the "synoptics" have interesting differences. Matthew's gospel begins full of dreams and visions directing Jesus' adoptive father Joseph where to go and when to move. Luke's gospel begins the story through Mary's experiences. Both get us to a humble birth acknowledged by stars and celestial choirs.

 Mark seems to be the earthiest and is for sure the one without birth narrative but just take a look at how Jesus displays his power and you have nearly as much of an reality of cosmic proportions as found in the others' beginnings.

The fourth out does the other 3 gospels without question. The prologue, John 1:1-18 is as cosmic and grand and expansive as any calmed storm or multiplication of food, any angel choir or guiding star.

1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. 4 What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

That scale, that dimensionality is maintained throughout John's gospel.  Jesus is always as big as the Word such that John can consistently portray the relationship Jesus has with God as no less than Father and Son, as the two being One.

Together with Mark's outlining, Matthew and Luke show us a Jesus becoming as "big" as God, big enough to sit at His right hand in heaven.  So that there is a determination and authority that grows as the team approaches Jerusalem.

In the fourth gospel that proximity and measure has been seen-to before any starlit birth, or prodigious temple lingering or descent into the Jordan to be baptized by John; before any miracle or argument or prayer.

The connection that Jesus has when he takes, breaks and blesses the bread in the upper room, when he prays from Gethsemene, whenever we hear him talk about being "the way, the truth, and the life," is always the same size and always in oneness with God.

According to John, only Jesus as the Word dwelling among us is connected like Jesus is connected.  Using the perspective of the fourth gospel you could say that only He practices true "religion."

Here's the Easter message from the point of that oneness.  Even in the fourth gospel Jesus hangs on a cross and dies.  In other words, the connection he shares with us as "the human one" is just as real. So what God raises is not just God's self or Son, it is all humanity, all creation, all light, all dwelling, all connections.

Easter is not just the good news that God raised Jesus from the dead, it is the perfection of our religion, our connection with God.  When God raised Jesus we all became connected in a way like no other.


Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Religion is to be Connected: Part 2

There are lots of ways to name when people come together in worship: churches, families, gatherings, assemblies, communions, parishes, dioceses, conventions, temples, synagogues, mosques, ashrams, monasteries, convents, basilicas, cathedrals, meeting houses, daoguans, candis.  And those are many of the names we use when worship is in one way or another "institutionalized."

I used to meet my friend Rev. Sam Buice at the Duncan Bridge over the Chattahoochee, where he had parked his truck and drive him to where Blue Creek Rd. crossed over the same Chattahoochee before he would climb into his kayak and paddle his way down stream.

The last thing we'd do before his embarking was open our prayerbooks to read Morning Prayer together.  A little less institutionalized, especially if you need a building for it to count, but adequately structured to be on the above list.

These types of gatherings often have to be understood by some under the "spiritual but not religious" banner exactly because the institutional pieces are so cumbersome or pressing.  Most everyone, even those of us who make a living by way of and for the institutional church go alone to the woods in some way but can still share the experience with others.

Yes, many of us have a practice of private devotions, private prayers, private meditation but we are also ready to share from those sources of strength and refreshment.  Indeed, many of us cannot wait to talk about our experiences from in and around those privacies.

In other words, connections matter.  Just like the word religion means our being tied back to God, our individual, personal, spiritual epiphanies and prayers urge us to be with others, to share, to celebrate.

It happens enough to warrant mention that lots of spirituality suffers the absence of others.  Churches, temples, daoguns are a hedge that the institutionalizing grows against the idiosyncrasies we create when we keep our spirits to ourselves.

So I have little problem with the recent FaceBook meme that preferred thinking about God while kayaking over being in church yet thinking about kayaking.

Based on the experience my daughter and I had paddling and double portaging the Oconee between Simonton Bridge and the NFS boat ramp near Hwy 15 and Ward Road north of Greensboro I'd say for several reasons God was mentioned more than enough.

Good or bad, it was more of a religious experience than we intended.  In the end the best part of our "adventure" was what we shared, how we enjoyed and struggled together and still now how we are connected in a way we were not the day before.

I hope our religion has us saying the same about our Advent connections.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Religion is to be Connected: Part 1

Episcopal parishes are named in a wide variety of manners and customs.  Some are given the name of a saint because the date of their founding coincides with that particular saint's commemoration.

Others are affiliated with particular saints because of some ethnic or historical connection.  Some take the first name on the list "Christ" like our kindred in Savannah, St. Simon's (ironic?), Kennesaw, Norcross, Augusta, Cordele, St. Mary's (?), Dublin, and Valdosta. Are there others?

Along with the "Christ churches" are those using one of the other titles bestowed on Jesus: Immanuel, Redeemer, [Our] Savior, King, [Christus] Victor, and Good Shepherd.  There are others.

Advent falls into yet another category that uses significant events or actions of God in Christ to which to pay tribute.  Include with us Epiphany, Nativity, Resurrection, Atonement, or Incarnation.

There are other smaller groups, for instance those relying on some connection to or an event in the life of St. Mary, the Virgin; Assumption, Annunciation, Immaculate Conception, Our Lady, Holy Family.  There are others also.

Also worth noting are those parishes named after the Trinity or some member of the Trinity in particular the third person: Holy Spirit, Holy Comforter. There are also others here.

Lots of ways to name Episcopal parishes and all of them expressions of connection.  By way of "All Saints (yet another name!) we are connected to a long history of exemplary witness in leadership, in scholarship, in missions, and in martyrdom.

By way of its name, our parish is connected to an expression of hope and memory, to an admission to judgement and the acceptance of redemption, to a yearning for completion and reward and to an expectation that even more is soon to happen in our connections with God.

This past Easter Sunday and the days that follow it are the best expression I know of how connected we are to each other and to those before us and to those after us.

Not only have we been joined by some of our number who seldom attend, we have seen extended families filling pews with children and siblings living far away.  Even the way the church fills and forces us to sit closer to each other implies that connection.

Easter is the day that all these connections need to start.  Without Easter there wouldn't be any saints, any notable attributes, any remarkable Marian moments,  any attention on God's sustaining us with a comforting spiritual presence.

Connected is what the church hopes to be.  Connected with God is what the word religion means.