Sunday, January 29, 2017

Post-heroic spirituality on the way home....

The poet Ann Hillman writes this:

We look with uncertainty
beyond the old choices for

clear-cut answers

to a softer, more permeable aliveness

which is every moment

at the brink of death;

for something new is being born in us

if we but let it.

We stand at a new doorway,

awaiting that which comes…

daring to be human creatures,

vulnerable to the beauty of existence.

Learning to love.

Fifty years ago a Buddhist teacher in the US was asked for a two word definition of his religion; he said, “Things Change.” This is true in my own understanding of Christianity. In the last few months I’ve done  some reflection and writing on how we make a rule of life for ourselves as well as how we might work with others in sharing, a “spiritual inventory” or formal confession based on such a rule of life. And it’s taken me back some twenty-something years when I taught a couple of classes using three particular definitions for spirituality, god and religion: it made me realise how much things change.

Spirituality, I said then, was what happens when the air gets fresh, when you’re surprised, refreshed, renewed. For the students I worked with it could be seeing a loved one, picking up a child, cooking, walking, swimming, loving.

A god was anything that offers a blessing and asks for a sacrifice. I told people to find it looking at their check books and calendars. I remember one wonderful woman telling me that her god was with her partner and child and the mortgage they sacrificed and saved for together.

And all this led to a definition of religion, which is how we line up what matters: we can even see it in our bodies: Head - what we think is important; Heart - what is pulling at our feelings; Gut - where our strongest convictions wait, and Groin - down there in what Monty Python called the naughty parts with our deepest passion and desires. All put together mapping out our lives and waiting to be lined up for the battle.

I might have used those categories myself almost fifty years ago when I joined the church. My search for spirituality came because I was a shy and scared kid craving community and connection, needing friends and a focus and a faith that I was seen and valued and maybe even loved. So I followed the God of the Anglican Church (The Episcopal Church in the USA), and the hope I saw in these communities of Jesus: the traditions, the scriptures, that I found in the hearts of several parishes and finally seminaries all helping my understanding of what it meant to be alive, be accepted, to loved and loving, and this continues. But over the years it’s changed a lot for me, and I bet for you too…

Because the Good News at 21 evolved and changed some in my thirties, and more in my  forties and fifties and even lately in my sixties and seventies because God keeps growing - growing both bigger and growing closer. Like the19th century hymn puts it,

“New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.”

So even getting older, it seems we must still upward and onward and this isn’t always easy, epecially when we come to the Sermon on the Mount, a part of Matthew’s Gospel that offers different answers on winning and losing and what matters in the end. Because Matthew’s lesson has at least two sides, two points of view, you might  call them the high way or the low road; and they’re both true. The high way is that, as several saints in the early church said, “God becomes human so that humankind might become God.” The low road is that, “In Jesus God has come to be lost in humanity so that all might be found in Christ.” The first is termed our upward call, the second God’s divine condescension, and I believe the Good News is that winners and losers all make it home at the end because Jesus' life leaves room for everybody!

If we look carefully at the Gospel for today, even taking it backwards; some of it makes easy sense: you are blessed if you are persecuted, hurt and harmed  for righteousness sake. Too easy! My first spiritual director told me the big question was how uncomfortable are you willing to be for the new kingdom of heaven — even though I’d now balance that with this quote from J. D. Salinger’s, “The mark of the immature… [person is that… [they] want… to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature… [person] is that… [they] want… to live humbly for one.” All that sacrifice can sometimes get us into big trouble.

Even the second category, meaning the merciful, the peacemakers, the pure in heart, people all participating in God-shaped events, that makes some sense — their lives follow their loves, what they work for pays off. But the last category of blessed, the one that Matthew puts first, just listen to that group again: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for a righteousness which they don’t see. This is different, they are blessed for what they haven’t got, for the prize they didn’t win, the road they never found, even for what they don’t see; in the place where only the loss remains: and that’s enough.

I wish I had known that when I was younger, that it might be less important whether we won or lost, that the desires for spiritual depth, the glimpses of the glories of God, the religious dreams carried all those years ago would turn out to be less crucial as time went on. I didn’t know that at 21 or 35, but by 50 I understood more about a certain humility and grace that comes from surviving and accepting folly and failure, what T. S. Eliot meant when he wrote, “Life is what we make of the mess we make of things.” I learned that, just as the fool who persists in folly becomes wise, so that time often makes winners lose and losers win and we all get home at the last by the grace of God. In the end all those heroics of a younger life get tempered by the trials of time and for all of us who know what it is to fall short, deal with defeat and deferred dreams, with ideas and aims gone astray and diets that never went as planned; for all that the beatitudes of Matthew’s Mountaintop sermon give us very good news.

So if there are two questions: who wins and loses? There are three answers; we all fall short, we all get there, and Jesus blesses everyone at the end,  winners or losers or whatever, even now.

We look with uncertainty
beyond the old choices for

clear-cut answers

to a softer, more permeable aliveness

which is every moment

at the brink of death;

for something new is being born in us

if we but let it.

We stand at a new doorway,

awaiting that which comes…

daring to be human creatures,

vulnerable to the beauty of existence.

Learning to love.

Epiphany 4A
Holy Trinity Cathedral
Wangaratta


3 comments:

Anonymous said...

thanks Rob, with all that is happening this is most appropriate in every way, it felt like you were speaking only to me which is quite incredible I don't often experience that Jane B

Robert Whalley said...

Thanks Jane, I gather the sermons together from thoughts and feelings, questions from my own life, what I know around the congregation and parish, what's happening in the world -- so it's lovely to hear from someone who's read their own experience in my reflections. We really are the body of Christ! Rob

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