Friday, April 18, 2014

An Absolutely Irrefutable Version of the Easter Story

Yes, I realize it is Good Friday and Easter is still to come, but I thought this might be a helpful meditation for some as we live out the next couple of days. 

I’m thinking of two seminary professors who helped me come to an understanding of Easter that seems broad enough for just about every possible take on the Christian tradition.  I don’t know if that’s what they meant to be teaching at the time, but that is what I took away.  Here it is.

The first of those professors, Charlie Price, had left the seminary before I arrived, but he had made his mark, not just on that seminary, but on the larger church as well.  Several stories and quotes of Dr. Price’s were circulated around the seminary in a scriptural sort of way, by which I mean that they grew and were improved in their telling by the way they expanded in the hearts of the faithful.  One of my favorite “Price” stories had to do with his being challenged by someone after he had spoken about the Eucharist as being a symbol.  The hearer is reported to have asked, “are you saying the Eucharist is nothing but a symbol?”  To which Price is said to have responded, “I’m saying it is nothing less than a symbol.”  
It helps here to know that a symbol in that place was defined as a sign that not only points to, but also participates in the larger reality it represents.  The person who challenged that “symbol” statement seemed to think that calling the Eucharist a symbol flew in the face of doctrinal statements that affirm the reality of the Eucharist.  Price’s response was that the Eucharist participates in a reality that is too grand to define and should not be limited by our ideas about it.  Like I say, the story was circulating during my time at the seminary and I don’t actually know if it happened like that or if I have taken the intended meaning from the story, but I have always loved it.  I had never encountered in theology such a wide open, and yet challenging and freeing space.  Theologians love answers, but here was a theological position quite comfortable standing at the edge of a great mystery and saying “there is more here than we can imagine.”  Thank you Dr. Price.

The other professor who helped me with the Easter story was David Adams, who taught New Testament.  In our first semester, he led my whole class through the four gospels, pointing out all the ways in which basic human story-telling agenda had shaped them.  His job, he said, was to plow up the fields of our understanding of the gospels so we could see them in new ways.  After three months of deconstructing what most of the class held sacred, a time in which some of us were intrigued, some were demoralized and others became downright hostile, Dr. Adams summed up the whole semester for us on the last day of class.  He said he hoped we had learned that there is really very little we can actually know about Jesus.  His list was short.  He said we know that Jesus was born and that he was a traveling teacher who attracted a group of followers.  We know he got into trouble and was crucified.  And, he said, we know that after he was crucified, something happened.  

By the end of that first semester, I wasn’t sure what to believe about any of the tradition.  My field had been plowed and a lot of weeds had been turned under, I was pretty sure the crop had gone with them. I didn’t understand it at the time, and I still don’t know that I do, but somehow, that “something happened” line drew me back in.  I stopped worrying about any difference between human longing and divine revelation, understanding that whatever “happened” after Jesus’ death was a powerful sign of something real at work in the human heart.  Dr. Adams had shaken up the class and he had shaken those old stories until everything loose had fallen to the ground in a heap, and still I was left standing at the edge of a great mystery saying “there is more here than we can imagine.”  Thank you Dr. Adams.

John Baker

Saturday, April 12, 2014

84 Words

I believe there is a force, a power in the universe that has to do with love.  That power has something to do with us, it is present in us and around us and between us.  Somehow, it is for us. It becomes tangible in our caring for others and in fleeting moments of perceived connection to something larger, grander and deeper than our day to day experience.  Our attempts at community, contemplation and reflection can open us to a sense of its presence.  

I have hesitated to write because the landscape in front of me seems so new and so broad that I really have not been sure where to begin.  What does seem clear is that the faith statement I stumbled on a few weeks ago is changing my understanding of Jesus, this faith of ours, the church, and maybe most significantly for me, of belief itself.  In the days since I first wrote them I have painted those words, counted them, printed and posted them on the door of my office and on the wall across from my desk.  I have looked for something to edit in them, but have so far, not wanted to change a word.  They arrived composed, as if they had been forming out of sight in a process going on beneath the surface for some time.  I have hesitated to write also because these words seemed to have caused a shift within me, in my attitude toward some of those ideas I have pushed against for so long.  I’m still unwrapping that part of this experience, but I’ll share what I am thinking so far.

Being able to name what I believe seems to have taken the edge off of my need to push back against ideas in the tradition I have found troublesome.  I’ve had to think about that for a while.  Maybe you have known someone who not only has trouble with Christianity and its doctrines, but seems to have a good bit of emotional energy around their critique of the church.  I meet such people fairly often, and I have, at times, been one of those people.  I have had them come up to me after weddings and tell me how they “got over” the church.  I meet people who claim to want nothing to do with religion but who still seem to have an angry edge about the religion they claim to have dismissed.  It seems to offend some idea or standard they have decided to choose instead of religion.  I often like such people and feel like I know them.  Part of my problem with so many of Christianity’s words and doctrines has been that they seem opposed to some deeper belief that I felt but until now, had never named.  I think I have pushed back against problem ideas at times because I was trying to preserve a space where that underlying, grounding sort of belief could come into focus.  Now, having named that deeper belief, I hope I will be able to let down my guard a bit.  

As I look at the tradition I follow and serve in the context of this newly stated belief, I find connections I want to pursue and ponder.  If you ask me who is Jesus for me today, I can answer easily that he is the one in whose company I have come to believe that there is a force, a power in the universe that has to do with love.  ……..  When I celebrate the Eucharist and when I reach out my hands to take bread and wine, I think of the power that becomes tangible in fleeting moments of perceived connection to something larger, grander and deeper than our day to day experience.   I am reading my way through the gospels for the first time in a long time, and I hear Jesus saying the power that has to do with love has come near and that our attempts at community, contemplation and reflection can open us to a sense of its presence.  

Today I am listening to the tradition and to my heart, which I have come to trust and appreciate, in a new way.  As I head into Holy Week, I will be attentive to what resonates deeply.  That, I will embrace and celebrate.  The rest, I hope I can leave behind.  I wish I could offer that approach as a prescription in advance to all those who will be in church next Sunday against their better judgement, quite possibly because they love somebody who really wants to be there.  I will be truly glad to see them.  I like the company.  JB

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Like Making Sausage?

I’m working on the mandala.  For now, all I have are the words of this new faith statement written in a square spiral—if that’s possible—around a largish canvass.  What you see is what I have thus far.  I now have some idea of how I might be able to make these words fit.  In the coming weeks, I’ll paint colors over them and then put the words back on top.  My goal is a painting, a visual mantra for my office, a mandala whose circles invite me to remain centered and whose words call me to deeper reflection on what lies near the center.  In the meantime, I think I will be writing about leaving one kind of believing and embracing another.  That seems to be the theme that has arrived.

And at this point, I want to note something about where this blog seems to be going.  I thought about waiting to take a picture of the mandala until it is finished.  Who, I thought, wants to see a bunch of words painted in a hurry with only a promise of more?  So revealing the process is also a part of this.  In fact, I’m beginning to think it is close to the heart of what I am learning.  So here’s my disclaimer to the faithful in my parish.  If it makes you uncomfortable to know that your priest is still working on all of the basics, like, who or what is God, who was Jesus, who is Jesus, what does it mean to have joined others in gathering around ancient stories—if my questions about such things make you uneasy, then you may want to look away.  Maybe working out faith is like making sausage.  The end result is ok, but you don’t want to see it happening.   I am fascinated with this process, and with the invitation to share it in its unfolding.  I can’t wait.  I am trusting the process and the writing and the moving forward in a new way these days because I believe there is a force, a power in the universe that has something to do with love.  It has something to do with us……. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Amazing Grace

I believe there is a force, a power in the universe that has to do with love.  That power has something to do with us, it is present in us and around us and between us.  Somehow, it is for us. It becomes tangible in our caring for others and in fleeting moments of perceived connection to something larger, grander and deeper than our day to day experience.  Our attempts at community, contemplation and reflection can open us to a sense of its presence.  

After I wrote those words last week, I went on to say about them, “that feels like solid ground.”  Had I waited a week to post, I might have said they felt like an open field at the end of a dark woods, or a deep breath after a long dive.  I am still reeling from the impact of those words.  Of course, it wasn’t just the words, but the sharing of those words that has opened a new world to me.  I am, as my friend said last week, out, and nothing will ever be the same.  Thank God.

The words I found last week were new to me.  I had, at times throughout my life, reflected on what I believed, by rehearsing what I might say to someone who asked about my belief.  That reflection had always involved some sort of attempt to reconcile what I thought I could honestly claim as belief with what seemed to me to be the beliefs of the church I serve.  Those two lists never matched and they never came together in a satisfying way.  Sometimes I would end up feeling, deep down inside, though I don’t think I really understood it until this week, that I needed to find my way to the Church’s belief or disqualify myself as a priest.  It had seemed so obvious, so natural, so easy to tell others they are welcome in the Church regardless of what they believe.  I am still surprised at how right it felt to say that to them while I really didn’t believe it for myself.  It felt last week as if this new core belief statement had just appeared suddenly out of nowhere.  I now understand that I have been working on that statement all my life.  

I am also beginning to see that those few short lines about what I really do believe have the power to provide a new context for some of those other ideas I had to let go of.  Not only that, but this whole experience of becoming honest about belief has much to teach me about the faith that seemed so complicated.  

I have a long list of “church” words in my notes for this blog, words about ideas that have caused me trouble and about which I plan to write.  Among them, is the word, “salvation.”  Salvation has been on my troubling words list for some time.  When I’ve heard  the church say “salvation” I have heard judgement, and the threat of hell, and Jesus paying a debt for us.  Not believing in hell, salvation has always seemed a bit anachronistic.  I’ve wondered if it isn’t time to be through with the whole notion of salvation.  I did have a glimmer of hope for the concept years ago when Don McLean asked, in his song “American Pie,” if music could save my mortal soul and I was able to answer an enthusiastic “yes.”   Otherwise, it just isn’t a topic I’ve felt any inclination to talk, much less preach about.  

That was last week.  Today, I think salvation might be the telling of old stories.  It might be getting honest about wearying struggles, about claiming your own truth.  Today, as I write these lines, I feel—having chosen my own truth, my own beliefs over some other list I thought someone else might want me to believe—as if I once was lost but now am found…..was blind but now I see.  Salvation is, for me, this afternoon, a pretty powerful concept having to do with freedom and acceptance and honesty.  I wonder what other words I might be able to salvage from my scrap heap in the wake of having come to solid ground.

I set out a couple of months ago to write for others who might be struggling with this whole belief thing.  Now I know I am writing for myself as well.  Who knows where this will go?  I am grateful for the feedback many of you have given on these posts, and particularly for those who tell me they have lived with the sorts of questions that have shaped my journey and who, with me, keep working within the questions because there is something here we need.  I’m thinking about painting this new faith statement around the edges of a mandala on this snowy afternoon.  I’ll send you a picture when it’s done.    John Baker

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

On Coming Out to the Bishop

I was eating lunch the other day with a clergy friend.  We had gotten together to talk about belief, and the Church, and our evolving understanding of what Christianity is about and I began to tell my friend about the challenges of growing up in Memphis,Tennessee, the buckle of the Bible belt.  I said that even as a child I never really believed in hell and that had led to many difficult conversations with friends at school.  I told of other things that people, even in my easy going Episcopal Church, took for granted, things I was not so sure about.  I had wondered, for instance, why we worshipped Jesus when he never seemed to want that kind of attention.  I told my friend about how for most of my life I had felt I had to be careful about telling people what I really believed, that I was afraid I would get caught believing all the wrong things. I told her also about a recent conversation with my bishop, one in which I told the bishop that I had come to a place in life where I realize I can believe whatever I want and about how freeing that realization is.  My friend looked at me and in a very pastoral tone said, “That must have been hard for you all those years keeping that secret. And now you’ve come out to your bishop.  That must feel  pretty good.”  I was grateful for such a caring response from someone who understood what I was saying better than I did.  

I am thinking of another time, back in those days of not saying everything I believed.  I had somehow ended up as the leader in a small discussion group on a retreat weekend.  Eight of us were talking about our understanding of God and our lives and our hopes, that sort of thing.  A woman across from me said, kind of sadly, that she had been reading the Bible and her reading had led her to believe that God might let someone go to heaven for a while and then change his mind and send them on to hell.  I came out of my chair when she said that.  Partly because, as the leader, I was sorry to hear the conversation go that way, but mostly because what she said had offended something deep within me.  I crossed to her and looked her in the face and said, no, that couldn’t be the case.  God isn’t like that.  

Now, I try not to claim to know the mind of God, and I don’t have much use for others who say they know the mind of God.  But in that moment, I was up and had spoken before I knew what was happening.  It was a visceral response about something I believed so deeply I couldn’t help but respond.  I responded as I did also because I hurt for her.  It happened in a split second, something, hidden and powerful, and life affirming became real and present in concern for another.  That something was a core belief, exposed by her words, and it had to do with the reality of a love that is always better than we expect.  That belief was real and compelling in that moment, and it required that I try to share it with her. 

I’ve only been saying those words I spoke to the bishop, the ones about believing what I want to, for a short time, maybe for the last year.  They still feel right.  And, having found those words, I continue to ask myself what it is that I do believe.  The best I can tell you today is that it is something like this:  

I believe there is a force, a power in the universe that has to do with love.  That power has something to do with us, it is present in us and around us and between us.  Somehow, it is for us. It becomes tangible in our caring for others and in fleeting moments of perceived connection to something larger, grander and deeper than our day to day experience.  Our attempts at community, contemplation and reflection can open us to a sense of its presence.  

That sounds pretty close.  That feels like solid ground.

When I spoke to my bishop, I think I was still focused on an old list of things I don’t believe.  It was as if I was confessing my unbelief, and there was some relief in that.  I see now that I was also telling her that I have identified a core of belief that feels right, that rings true for me and within me, and against which all those other ideas, the ones we Christians tend to argue about, the ones I was worried about not believing all those years, must be tested.  I have been preaching for years that you don’t have to believe everything the Church teaches, that belief is something you work out over time, in a faith community, and that your belief may not look like what you think the Church expects you to believe.  I’ve said all those things.  And, as is often the case, I see today that I have been preaching to myself.  

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

A Sinless Lent?

I’m not imagining here a Lent in which no one sins, I do understand that we are all human.  I’m just wondering what it would be like to go through the whole season of Lent without using the word “sin” or “sinful” or the one I’d really like to try to live without, “sinner.”  Who knows what the church might learn from such an exercise?  

I took painting classes some years ago from a painter who, when he came around to critique my work, would often say, “too much white.”   I finally began to understand that colors lightened with too much white start to look grey and washed out.  Too much white can kill a painting in a hurry.  I have since talked to other painters who know the temptation to use too much white and how difficult it can be to learn to get by without it.  Some have told the story of being challenged by instructors to try painting without any white in order to learn other ways of making a painting work.  

So what if on Ash Wednesday we shifted the language of Lent.  Instead of “lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness,” we might “remember the call to love and renew our commitment to follow Jesus.”  Don’t both of those statements end up in the same place, wanting to go forward participating more deeply in the good?  Don’t both statements say that we want our lives to be worth something, to live into a standard we believe in even though we sometimes lose sight of it?  

The traditional language of sin is so often not just about what we do, but about who we are.  To define ourselves as sinners, as happens often in our prayers, especially in Lent, seems to me to be a pretty harsh and unhelpful judgement.  I have looked out on congregations of folks I know to be struggling with all sorts of misplaced guilts, all kinds of burdens and questions….I’ve looked out on a Sunday and said to myself, “they don’t need to hear this stuff.  They just don’t deserve it.  It doesn’t apply.”  This harsh judgement of humanity is tied to the idea of original sin.  The idea of original sin has been around since the fourth century, and for many of us, that’s about sixteen centuries too long. 

I keep meeting other Christians, most of them clergy, who, like me, have given up on the idea of original sin and the language that flows out of that doctrine.  Many writers are reminding us of other veins of thought running through ancient tradition, lines of thinking that challenge the idea of a fallen humanity defined by sin.  Matthew Fox wrote his book Original Blessing as a counter to the idea of original sin.  Other writers are mining the Celtic tradition which sees God permeating all creation, meaning that at our center we too are still essentially good.  

Of course we screw up sometimes, of course we break the hearts of others and of ourselves.  When that happens, the language of sin can be rich and descriptive of the situation in ways that help lead to reconciliation.  But that language has to be used sparingly or it can take over.  

I don’t actually think we can escape all of the “sin” language during Lent.  We can, though, try to imagine, when we hear it, what the language would sound like and what it’s message would be if it were turned around.  When we hear, “We have not loved others as ourselves,” we might try to hear that we are not only called to love others, but must be capable of that love or we wouldn’t be discussing it.  When we hear of our “forgetting” we can move quickly to a new call to remember, which again must be possible for us, or why mention it.  Maybe in the midst of all that penitential language, we will begin to hear that we really can love well, care deeply, match our actions to our best hopes, live thankfully…… get the idea.  And those good qualities and possibilities we find within ourselves, and not our sinfulness, will be the story of who we are.  


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Saturday, February 22, 2014

Christians are Like Africans

When I entered seminary many years ago, I knew nothing about Africa. I thought of Africa as a place of mystery where everyone was black and modernity had still not found its way into all the crooks and corners of the continent.  But mostly, I thought of Africa as one place, not the many different, diverse places that it is.  It was in the company of a dozen or so students from African nations that I began to revise my understanding of the word “African.”   Sometimes, while eating lunch in the refectory with someone from Uganda or Kenya or South Africa or Malawi, I would draw the basic shape of the continent—I did know that much—on a napkin and ask them to show me where their country was.  One time I was with a group of people, each from a different country, who laughed when I told them I had always thought of Africa as one place.  “Oh no,” someone said.  “We are very different.”  I still don’t know much about Africa, but I do know that once you have said the word “African,” there is still more to be said before anyone can tell whom you are speaking about.  And so it is with the word “Christian.”

I write today in response to an article in the Washington Post about a new film version of what the world will be like after the rapture.  The rapture, you may know, is the idea that some day, all the people who have chosen to align with Jesus will be carried off to heaven, leaving everyone else to suffer the terrible consequences of not having chosen that path.  The creator of the film says his purpose in making it was basically to scare people into becoming Christians.  My purpose today is not to tell you all the reasons why that doesn’t sound to me like Christianity.  I write to say that Christianity is more than one country and more than one culture.  The article in the Post today is just not about the part of Christianity where I live.  When you hear the word “Christian” especially in the news, it is worth asking just which part of the continent is actually being discussed.

Christianity covers such a great diversity of beliefs, passions, hopes, traditions, sensibilities, personality types……I could go on.  I don’t even know if I can draw the outline of the continent of Christianity very clearly, or clearly enough that all Christians would recognize it, but I will try.  Christians are people who have chosen to throw their lot in with Jesus.  That’s it.  Any more detail than that would just wave the flag for my particular nation and maybe lead to arguments.  Christians are people who have chosen to go with Jesus.  That’ll do.  

Some have chosen to hitch their wagons to Jesus, who will not only get them into heaven, but help them lead others there.  Some hope Jesus will challenge and empower them to live meaningful lives serving those in need.  Some hope Jesus will give them courage  and words as they challenge those in power to see themselves as God’s stewards.  Many of the people I know who call themselves Christians don’t even talk much about Jesus.  They just find that in the community that gathers around the stories of Jesus, growth seems possible.  Some Christians seek a deeper grounding for their lives and are drawn to the the idea of Jesus whose humanity seemed to be grounded deeply in God.  Some Christians talk a lot about God and Jesus, others are silent.  Most of us probably have some mix of these elements and more in our make up.  

When I read stories like the one in today’s Post, I don’t want to change the movie-maker’s ideas about Christianity.  I just don’t want people to imagine those ideas when they hear the word “Christian.”  I wish I could say I don’t want them to hear only those ideas, but the truth is, those ideas offend my sense of what Christianity is about, so I don’t want people to go there when they hear “Christian.”  I am only human.  And I know that folks in some of those other nations on the Christian continent have similar feelings about me.  

Once, at a workshop for clergy, I heard a pastor ask one of my favorite, theologically-liberal writers how, with his ideas about Jesus, he could call himself a Christian.  The writer said he kept using the term because he wanted people to know there were many kinds of Christians.  I have wondered sometimes over the years how I might answer that question.  I think of a young man, still in college, who had agreed—sort of—to be baptized at the request of his mother who was only months away from death. He and I had to do some haggling about what he could affirm in choosing to be baptized.  In the end, the family gathered and I asked him simply if he could say that Jesus would be his way.  In learning and growing and becoming what God created him to be, would he choose Jesus as the path.  To that, he was able to say “yes,” and was baptized.  Why do I call myself a Christian?  Like that young man, it is the path I have chosen.  My understanding of that path has changed many times.  I’m sure it will change again.  “Christianity,” the continent in which my little country lies, is huge.  And I am pretty sure that the contour of this vast place, simply drawn, is “I have thrown in my lot with Jesus.”

John Baker  

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