The sky is trying to rain—it really is. The monsoon season ostensibly has started (it’s past the 4th of July,) and heavy clouds cover the earth. Nights are warm, the air heavy with humidity (relatively speaking anyway, not like Houston!) But it has not rained. What we call “The Wall,” a slope on the eastern side of the house that we planted in bulbs, is dry. The cattle tanks on the prairie below us are full of dust. It’s trying to rain but is having a hard time actually doing it. They say that “close enough only matters with hand grenades and horse shoes.” Intentions are essential on moral theology, but St. Bernard of Clairvaux is credited with the proverb, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
The hungry starve if all they have to eat are good intentions. The cold freeze to death if all they have for warmth is good intentions. The lonely languish if all the comfort they have are good intentions. The oppressed crumble if all the freedom they know are good intentions. The promises of the Kingdom from Isaiah 611 are nothing if all they are is good intention.
If as St. Teresa of Avila said, we are Jesus’ hands and feet in the world, if those famous promises are fulfilled in him and passed on to us, unfulfilled good intentions are close, but not close enough. Body and soul must become one in intention and action, prayer must sprout feet and hands as well as words, the people of God must be the people of God before the Holy Place and after they walk out the door of their place of worship for the Kingdom to come.
The popular apathy toward religion may merely be a mirror of the apathy in religion.
1″The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.” (ff)
Every morning that I can I spend some time sitting in silence. I try to calm my thoughts by focusing on my breathing and how my body feels in the chair, what I see out my window, especially Cooke’s Peak in the distance. When extraneous thoughts come (which they usually do in unrelenting waves) I set them aside on the shelf of my mind to attend to later. Right now I want to be in the now.
The rest of my day is not often spent in quiet. It is busy with a hundred things a pastor does. They are good things, but they are usually (rightly) oriented to the future or the past rather than the now. There is a balance between them.
Living in a balance is a—well, a balancing act. Both sides of a balance are important. Both quiet and action are important. They are not separate and they are not the same. But living in the balance by focusing first on one and then on the other is like trying to drive a car down the highway by looking first at one fender and then at the other. It doesn’t work that way.
Essential to a balance scale it is the pole on which the balance beam is hung. It reaches beyond both sides and puts both in context. It is when we can glimpse the third, more ultimate truth that lies beyond both sides of the balance that we find true harmony.
What is the balance between silence and action? True humanity.
We are truly favored. We don’t have to fight the traffic and other fireworks viewers for a good spot to watch the city’s display on July 4th. Yes, it’s 3 miles off, and the reports of the offerings come to us well past the bursting balls of color, but we sit out by the side of our house, sip an adult beverage, and talk quietly. It has the potential of another kind of fireworks.
Wikipedia says, “Fireworks were invented in ancient China in the 7th century to scare away evil spirits, a natural application of gunpowder, one of the Four Great Inventions of ancient China.” Scaring away evil spirits sounds like a good idea to me. There are a lot of them darting around our country today, filling hearts with needless fear of one’s neighbor, overwrought anger at those who do things we don’t like, threats of useless violence, and black-and-white we-vs.-them” thinking. Fireworks are in full color.
On the evening of the 4th, when we gather together to watch what we profoundly feel (and really don’t even want to understand,) maybe the fireworks of the genius that has been granted the United States (rather than our stupidity) can undercut all the evil spirits and, starved of negative energy, expunge them from our presence.
Flags are flying all over town today—of course. It’s our nation’s independence day. I put my own out. There will be the requisite parade; the theme this year is heroes. I will sit on our church’s float handing out lollipops to kids and fliers to viewers about our hero, the Rev. Ted Howden who died on the Bataan death march because he gave away his rations to others he thought needed them more. We will smile and wave and feel very patriotic.
Flags—banners—insignia, markers of territory, identity and allegiance…the ancient Roman republic had a flag. Some sources claim that the ancient Egyptians flew flags. Flags hang in political and religious buildings. Some flags combine the image of the “axis mundi,” the axis of the world that anchors heaven and earth represented by the flagpole, with the society gathered around that axis, represented by the colors flown. Flags call us to something greater than a piece of colored cloth on a pole, greater even than the political entity they represent. They call us to recognize that at the core of any people there is a common conception of a Truth.
Cooke’s Peak is a flag of a different sort. She flies to 8000 ft. plus. She is the axis mundi to a hundred kinds of life that live on her flank. She has stood as an ensign to passing peoples from ancient times to recent. Rising from the Chihuahuan desert around her, her colors come in the bands of creosote brush, scrub-oak, sotol, and then high alpine grasses and flowers that cling to the crevasses of her massif. She, too, calls us to a community and to the Truth that human life is not all there is to creation—in fact our time on this planet compared to the most ancient rocks is mere seconds on the clock. I see her and smile, and feel quite young and foolish.
What is the flag of my heart? How do I anchor heaven and earth for myself and for others? What are my colors? What is the great Truth on which I stand? Hear me: I am a bridge-builder between heaven and earth, gathering peoples around one another and the ancient wisdom of the Christian faith in communion with the earth. I am not the only bridge-builder, but I am one, and in me I hope people see all such bridge-builders and the possibility of building bridges themselves.
Someone recently referred to my chosen church, the Episcopal Church, as the “National Church.” He cited the fact that more than half of the Presidents of the United States have been Episcopalian, that the National Cathedral is an Episcopal church and that we have dominated the chaplaincy in the armed forces since the beginning (though not anymore.) It got me thinking. I think I know what that person meant. He meant that socially and culturally, when people think of official Church functions the images in their heads are largely taken from our tradition. He also meant that the Episcopal Church is the church of the influential, the movers and shakers and the guardians of the social contract. He implied that to be somebody in town you had better belong to the Episcopal Church. The Church was a voice for stability and predictability, an enforcer of the social contract beyond the pale of law enforcement.
The man is well up in years, and I can see how he still sees his church in this light. It certainly was the role the Episcopal Church played for many decades in our history. However, in the 60’s and 70’s the Church recognized that such a role in society imposes a muzzle. How can the Church speak out against the ills of the day when it is so invested in the status quo? We sought to recapture the prophetic role that is rightly the role of communities of faith. The idea is rooted in the tradition of the ancient Hebrew prophets who, more than foretelling the future, outlined in no uncertain terms the gap between God’s ideal and the reality of the audience to whom they spoke. Jesus took up this role with the corruption of the Jewish leadership of his day. (Remember, Jesus was also a Jew. His fight with the Pharisees was an in-house thing that gives no support to successionism and anti-Semitism in the Church.)
Since the days of those brave ancient Jewish voices the idea has been with us that government has no automatic corner on truth or righteousness and therefore MUST appeal to a higher authority for validity. The role of communities of faith in this process is vital. On the one hand we hold fast to the ancient truths, the time-proven patterns of wise living and holy community. On the other hand we speak to the gaps that emerge between that great ideal and the reality of our society. In the pluralistic religious context of today here is common ground between religious traditions on which the religious community can address the State. The State, on the other hand, must always resist any efforts of the religious community to co-opt its work and DO politics, and the seduction of using religion for its own ends.
This afternoon we got back to our mountain home. We have watched the scenery whizzing by the car turn from tall green trees and dark forests to open farmland, to Texas-sized trees (the only thing in Texas NOT big,) to bushes and grassland, to Chihuahuan Desert and then to the high desert grass and scrub oak that punctuates our windows. It’s good to be home. It was good to be away, for sure. We enjoyed seeing family, the break in the routine, and the new vistas, but now we’re back to what is “ours.”
They say that home is where the heart is. Jesus said, “your treasure is where your heart is.” Home is more than just where you store your stuff. It’s where you hold responsibility bravely. What you treasure will cost you something, or it is not a treasure, and one of the costs is responsibility. Upon arriving home we pick up once again the tasks that are ours here, including mending the broken peach tree branch and mowing an overgrown lawn and harvesting a burgeoning garden.
It also includes being who we are in our community, bearing our half of our relationships, and working with others to make our world more just, more loving and more beautiful. The edges of my “home” are fuzzy, blurring into my neighborhood, my town, my county, state, country and planet–and who knows, maybe even beyond. Lessening amounts of responsibility mark ever-expanding rings of relationships. But can I ever say, “that is Not part of my home?” God asked of the murderous Cain, “Where is your brother?” and Cain answered with the quintessential retort, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
If this world is to be our home the answer must be a resounding “Yes!”
Tomorrow we head home again. We took five days to get to northern Indiana. We’ve had five days here. We will take five days to get home again. Yesterday I had this sense that it was time.
Place is an interesting thing, however. Our home in New Mexico is “place” to us. We have lived there five years. We feel at home there. It is the place to which we return when we leave. Our stuff is there. Our workplaces are there. We feel like we belong there. On the other hand, we have both spent a lot of time in northern Indiana. We have family here. Both of my parents grew up here. Karisse would love to retire to this area, buy 10 acres outside of town, and raise a big garden, a few chickens and goats and a bunch of fruit trees. This is “place” to us as well. Our oldest son and his wife are in Ecuador hiking in the mountains. We spent many years there as a couple. Ecuador is “place” to us also.
“Place” is a few squares on the face of the earth where for one reason or other the soil is familiar to our feet, the air is comfortable in our lungs, and the people around us are not strangers. Anywhere can become “place,” but not all places do. We are not capable of knowing “place” in every place with equal familiarity–we don’t live long enough. We are given instead places in which to know “place” so that any place can become “place” when we need it. We are given these places to let us know also that every place is “place” to someone, and therefore as sacred to them as we hold our “places” to be for us.