Archive for May, 1997
God? Are you there, God? Moses said to ask, so here I am asking. I want to ask you, God, about the dinosaurs. I guess it’s Steven Spielberg’s fault they’re on my mind, but they are. “Ask now about former ages, long before your own,” said Moses. Well, how about 65 million years ago? By the way is it all right to call you God, God? … I hope so!
What I want to know is why you made them, the dinosaurs. No, that’s not it … I want to know … why did you make them if you were going to let them die? God knows—oops sorry—they were around for a long time—longer by far than we mammals—let alone the speck of time my own species has been walking on our hind legs. They peopled this planet for thousands of millions of years. They ate, they fought, they frolicked, they made their music and made their children. They were tiny and they were enormous. They were drab and they were gaudy. They were ferocious and they were gentle—they were all the things that we are—in their own way. And now they’re gone. All of them. We haven’t been around for a hundredth of the time they were and yet we think we’ll be here for ever. Did they ever think that? Were any of them wise enough to wonder? And did any of them in their dino-way ever wonder about you?
OK what’s my point? Is that what you want to know, God? Well what I’m wondering is this: did you like them? You made them … but did you like them? And if you did … where’ve they gone?
Did the poor beasts bore you? Is that what happened? Were you just twiddling your celestial thumbs while they were your tenants? They were kind of showy but not much company? Is that it?
Now that I think of it the dinosaurs themselves were latecomers—only turning up on this blue planet in the last fraction of its history. What were you doing for the other millions upon millions of years before you had even dinosaurs to play with?
To a bipedal mammal like me, just down from the trees, it seems like this world must have been here for ever. But I guess that’s not true. Go back far enough and even the earth isn’t here, even the sun. Our star itself is a latecomer in the universe—one of the second generation born from the drifting ashes of other long dead suns. And even those first stars didn’t form until the universe was well into adulthood. My God! (Sorry!) But I can’t imagine that length of time! What were you doing? Didn’t you die of boredom?
If I were you—hey, we can all dream—if I were you I’d’ve found a quicker way. None of this coalescing and burning and drifting. None of this emerging and evolving and going extinct.
What’s it all been for? … For us? Don’t look at me like that! How can it all have been for us? For me? All of that. OK, forget about the stars, forget about the dinosaurs—hey—forget about the shark, the elk, the chimpanzee, the mosquito—forget about them all. Just tell, me this. Did you really wait all that time, waste all that space, for us? Dwindle all that infinity, all that eternity, for one insignificant species, from a minor planet, way out on the limb of a galaxy somewhere on the edge of nowhere. And not even for a species—for a trifling little tribe from the desert’s margin. And not even for a tribe—but for this woman and for that man—fleshy, fleeting, bags of water and guts. It’d be a miracle to even care for us a bit. And we’re not just small—we can be nasty with it. So what were you thinking to abandon everything and pitch your tent with ours—to come even closer and be one of us! It’s beyond belief. Are we that lovable? Are you that crazy?
Don’t look at me like that! … How can we deserve it? How can we respond? All we are is what you’ve made us. And yet you’ve made us part of your own self. You’ve opened your heart to us. You’ve adopted us into your own life. Of who you’ve always been. Have we been there since before it all began? Will we be there after it’s all ended?
“Ask,” said Moses, “ask has anything so great as this ever happened or has its like ever been heard?”
May 25th, 1997
“To live,” said John Henry Cardinal Newman, “is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Don’t you just hate him! Change, whether welcomed or dreaded, is always disturbing, always stirs us up, always sends us stepping over the edge into the unknown.
Here we are on the brink of great changes: something finished and something about to be begun; some things to celebrate and others to mourn … but all to remember. Here we are in a time between times, gathered around one table to eat the body of a broken bread and be sent, scattering, to the ends of the earth. We welcome that and we dread it.
A time between times. John, in his gospel, promises that the breaking of Jesus will gather the scattered children of God. But, in no time, as the Acts of Apostles relates, the gathering is broken up and the children scattered. Now for some the scattering was just geographical—their bodies moved but their hearts stood still—and they only took the word to their own. But others—no better—were moved by their movement to hand the word humbly to outsiders, to atheists, to enemies—to anyone who would listen. It’s in this scattering that they are called, for the first time, Christians. Christianity is born in this breaking and scattering of both body and soul.
But what lies between these two times? Between the promise of gathering and the reality of dispersal? The hinge turns freely on an axis of love hanging from a tree. Here is the pivot of an arc of renewal that will stretch to embrace the whole world. Here, at the focus of that movement of gathering and scattering, is the body of one human being—friend, lover, brother, … son—dying for life’s sake, dying for a change. And what lies at this burning point of focus? A moment of passion. A passionate end to a passionate life. A passionate prelude to a risen life of even greater passion—A time between times.
It’s the passion of Jesus—that openness to life and death in its fullness—to joy and sorrow in their depth—it’s his passion that brought everyone who knew him to discover their own. And, discovering, to change—one way or another—to reject and betray life, as some did, or to live life with intensity and care, ready to be moved by the passion of others to com-passion—ready—like a mother, like a lover—to share joy and even pain—to bear the life of Jesus into to the world.
We too—most of us—are in a time between times, poised to take new steps. Whatever this experience at Berkeley has been—a time of change, of renewal, of love, of learning, of unlearning—whether it has been a time of rest or a time of frenzy, whether it has been work or play—one thing we pray for. At this burning point of our lives may we have experienced here passion—depth, richness, energy. May we have learned a little better how to really live—vulnerable to suffering, unafraid of joy, and capable of care.
This is our call—as we scatter to the ends of the earth—the call to care with passionate intensity for all that is broken, to carry gently the healing burden of life, … to be the compassion of God for a wounded world.
May 21st, 1997
Don’t you find Ascension to be a puzzle, a mystery? Just as Eastertime is ending it pulls us up short with a reminder of just how deep the mystery of Easter is and how shocked we ought to be by Resurrection.
This is still Eastertime, Christ is still risen, but the strangeness of that is rubbed in once more today. Christ is not dead, Easter proclaims, Christ is alive and is with us. Christ is here … among us. But how? Each of the gospel writers struggles to give a glimpse of how the risen Jesus is present to his people, to his friends, to us. All the resurrection stories are strange — the risen Jesus walks through walls but eats cooked fish; the risen Jesus is alive and happy but bears still the wounds of his cruel death; the Risen Jesus is known in the breaking of the bread but is hardly recognisable to the eye. Is he real or isn’t he? Is he here or isn’t he? The answer: a resounding yes and no. A yes and no that reflects the messy situation of the Christian communities these guys were writing to. They had clear memory and honoured witness that Jesus had not only risen from the dead but had shown himself to people they knew, had spoken perplexing certainties to the doubting, brought a disturbing peace to the troubled, unaccountable comfort to the grieving, a calm courage to the trembling. But they knew, as well, that things weren’t quite the same for them. The Risen Jesus once present in flesh was now only present in memory. Where had the risen Jesus gone? Why did God bother raising Jesus up from the gates of hell if only to take him away from us once more? What kind of consolation is it for us, to know that the one we love is alive but that we can never see him again, can never touch him, can never say all that remains to be said?
This is what Luke is wrangling with. And he deepens the mystery before he releases it. In the Ascension we see the final goodbye: Jesus lifted up and taken from human sight. Another loss. To have lost him once through treachery and death; to get him back only to have him leave of his own accord.
So there they stand, friends and family, on a hilltop outside the city, straining their eyes to see where he had gone, hanging on to the after-image. Are they left alone? Left to their own devices? Yes and no. As the after-image fades, they have the usual overbearing angels pointing their gaze in a different direction: down the hill, into the city toward the habitat of the human heart. And they also have a promise. “I am going,” says Jesus, “but my Spirit is coming—a spirit that will drench you like a downpour, a spirit of power who will make you my witnesses.” All the gospels explain the absent presence of Jesus in terms of the same exchange: we lose his body but we gain his spirit. Is it a fair exchange?
Well, that all depends. We have to answer that question for ourselves. Is the spirit among us? Is that spirit better than having Jesus present in the flesh? Or are we living for an after-image?
It’s not an easy question to answer. By Mark’s measure in the gospel today you might wonder if the spirit is even here this morning. No snakes being handled, no drinking of deadly poison, no speaking in tongues, no demons being driven out. Mark loves to exaggerate but what’s clear is that expects his community to see some real signs that the Spirit of Jesus is alive among them. And so do we. We need to see the unmistakable signs of Spirit among us. Is that Spirit here this morning? Where can we point to confirm our message, who will be our witnesses?
I want to leave that question open. We have a week. Pentecost is coming. We have our own angels asking us “Why do you stand here looking up to the skies?” Asking us to look for Jesus somewhere else, down the hill, where people live. And we have Jesus, himself, promising us that his own Spirit has soaked us and is waiting to drench us once again.
So do we want that? Are we going to beg for that this week? Has the exchange of body for spirit been worthwhile? What are we waiting for?
May 11th, 1997
Join me for a moment in thinking about the people in your life who you love. Parents, children, husbands or wives, companions or partners, friends, lovers… Remember your first love … remember your latest. When I do that, when I remember the people I love, I see their faces and I imagine their hands. It might be different for you but that’s how it is for me. Somehow love is about eyes to look into, and hands to touch and be touched by. And not just any eyes and any hands but these eyes which look back so tenderly into my own, and those hands with their unique character and texture and weight. I don’t love just anyone — I love real, solid, individual people — in all their distinctive, odd, particularity. Some of are bound to me by bonds of blood. We are tied by kinship and resemblance and long years of familiarity. Some are drawn to me, and me to them, by leading strings of love freely given, freely exchanged, in the friendship of shared desires and humble attractions. But family or friend or lover or life-partner, these are the ones whose faces never leave me, whose features never leave me unmoved. I see them and I am touched, I feel, I hope, I fear, I doubt, … Something shifts in my stomach. They hold out their hand and I want to take it, to hold it, to keep it, to enfold it.
I do not know what love is but I know who these people I love are. And knowing them I catch a glimpse of what love is, of what it is to love. And knowing what it is to love I have the hint of the shape of the outline of what it is to be loved. Not in general, not in abstract, but as me — with these eyes, this flesh, these hands, this body. I know what it is to love someone else — the risk of it, the vulnerability, the fragility, the passion, the pain and the glory of it — and I learn what it is to be loved, to be the object of someone’s desire, their risk, their passion, their pain, their glory. And learning love I learn power and taste freedom and know wonder. Learn the power I have to hurt or to exalt. Taste the freedom to respond or to repel. Know the wonder of love’s innocence and love’s economy.
Can you see the faces of the ones you love? Can you hold their hands in yours? Can you feel that shifting in the pit of yourself that they evoke in you? And you in them?
If you can, then you can say with St. John: “Love consists in this; not that we have loved God but that God has loved us.” Like it or not—understand it or not—feel it or not—God loves us with all the risk, all the passion, all the pain, all the glory, all the delight of the love we cherish for those special to us. Strange to say, we have become special to God. God looks into our eyes and is moved. God reaches out in risk to touch our hands. God has befriended us — has tried to, has made the first move, taken the first risk, and stands like a lover, waiting nervously, fragilely, to see whether our response will bring hurt or delight. Not in general, not abstractly, but for me, for each one of you, in all our distinctiveness, with all our quirks. God is partial to each one of us.
How do we respond?
The readings today have a lot to say about this, offering a vision of a Christian community founded on friendship and built on mutual love. But alongside the warmth of all that particular care and love, those familiar relationships and bonds, alongside that stands a vision of Christian community that is not partial, not exclusive, not particular about who belongs and who matters. The challenge and the call is for us, for you and me, to cherish both visions. That we might a draw in all impartially and love all with great partiality. But can we do that? Don’t we love by accident, on account of particular likes and dislikes? Maybe we do. But at least we know this. God manages to have a passionate, daring, risky, heartfelt love for me, and for you and you and you and you. Not for all but for each. With all the power and passion of particular bonds. With all the impartial generosity of unbounded benevolence.
May 4th, 1997