Saturday, April 03, 2010

My bishop's reflection on Holy Saturday

The Vigil of Easter

May the light of Christ, rising in glory, dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds.

Joan Chittister writes that everyone who has ever lived, or who will ever live, will someday undergo a Holy Saturday of their own. Someday we will all know the power of overwhelming loss when life as we know it changes, when all hope dies in mid-flight. Then, and only then, she writes, can we begin to understand the purpose of Holy Saturday.

No doubt about it: this is the day of going down into the tomb---our own as well as Jesus'. It is now time for us to die to false hope. It is also time for us to die to faithless despair. Finally our hope is in the mercy of God in Christ, and not in our faithless attempts to construct hope in our own image, for our own ends. Finally, to begin to see the world as God sees the world and trust that God is the light in every darkness, is hope, whether our eyes can see the hand of God, or not.

To be able to come to that point before the beginning of the Easter Vigil, before the cantor sings the Exultet into the darkness, is what Holy Saturday is really about. Then loss is gain, and silence is a very clear message from God.

Adapted from The Liturgical Year, Joan Chittister


Merciful God, you heal the broken in heart and bind up the wounds of the afflicted. Strengthen us in our weakness, calm our troubled spirits, and dispel our doubts and fears. In Christ's rising from the dead, you conquered death and opened the gates of everlasting life. Renew our trust in you that by the power of your love we shall one day be brought together again with all whom we have loved and lost. Grant this, we pray, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

ELW, page 285

--Bishop Allan Bjornberg

Friday, April 02, 2010

Surveying the wondrous cross

“When I survey the wondrous cross on which the prince of glory died/ My richest gain I count as loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.”
When I survey the cross, something happens. It changes the way I look at the world, and at myself. When I survey the cross I am struck by the man stuck on that tree. I am struck with fear and trembling that it is in fact God who is on that tree.
God is crucified on a cross, and I am surveying that cross. It forces me to pay attention. It makes me look at the world around me in a new way and with new questions. It forces me to wonder why I’m down here and God is up there. It-throws-me-out-of-myself.
(Turn to your neighbor and repeat after me) When I survey the cross. It throws me out of myself.
When I survey the cross. When I survey the cross.

Lord God, on this, the remembrance of your passion and death, please allow me to speak a word that is true. Please allow me to preach a word to these people about you. May the words of my mouth and the meditations upon all of our hearts be acceptable to you this Good Friday. In the name of your son, Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.

When I survey the cross I see a man going up to Jerusalem. This capital city. This center of faith.
And he doesn’t look like much. He’s just another pilgrim from the countryside. He argues and debates with his fellow Rabbis. They argue about the same thing humans are always arguing about: Life, death, and taxes to Caesar.
Then he does some street theater. He rides that donkey that makes all the difference rough shod over Roman warhorses.
He even goes a step too far to bring his message home. He symbolically attacked the Temple. He rearranges the money changers.
But doesn’t he know? Doesn’t he know about revolt and repression?
Doesn’t he know about the slaughter of a few years previous?
Hasn’t he heard that a few years back a Roman soldier made an obscene gesture toward the Temple. Doesn’t he know that caused a riot? Doesn’t he know about Roman “Peace Keeping”? Doesn’t he know of the thousands of bodies that littered the street that year?

Riling up folk on the biggest holiday of the year, that’s a good way to get your fool self killed.

And that’s just what happens. He ends up at that lonely garden praying those fervent, frantic, and faithful prayers. And his friends fall asleep—for they can not stay awake with him even for one hour.
Then there is the betrayal. His friend came with a well-armed crowd and this man was caught by a disciple’s kiss.
When I survey the cross I see a troubling trial. I see a man beaten, lashed with Roman whip.
He is paraded around, he is mocked. Thorns are threaded together into a crown. They are placed upon his brow in a kingly coronation of pain.
But that isn’t enough. When I survey the cross I see a man who has to be dealt with. It is said he is a king. It is said he refused to pay taxes to Caesar. It is said he would destroy the temple.
It was this first charge, his claim of kingship, I believe, that got him killed.
When I survey the cross I see a man being executed for expediency. A man with big dreams and expansive ideas being killed because he talked about “The Kingdom of God.” Killed because kings don’t like their kingship questions and threatened.
So they execute him on a cross. They kill him along with thieves and criminals.

When I survey the cross I see a massive tragedy perpetrated by a mad system, scared people, and this man Jesus simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. In a sense, when I survey the cross, I simply see foolishness.

Yet. What a shift, if on that cross hangs God.
If the Creator of all that is, hangs upon a two by four and breaths one last breath. If the one who can say, “I am,” and end that statement with a period has become flesh. Become flesh to the point of crying out to God in anguish, God screaming out in God-forsaken-ness!
Then, then, we are knocked flat when we survey the cross. We are thrown out of ourselves, when we survey the cross. Any belly button gazing, any righteousness we believe we have collected is found to be folly. Any wisdom is foolishness and any strength weakness, when we survey the cross.
Oh yes, when we see the curse of the tree and the life of the Messiah meshed and mashed together we see the paradox of power and weakness, wisdom and foolishness. Because we’ve been thrown out of ourselves.
All the systems that we have set up to cope with the world as it is are judged in light of killing God. Every piece of reality and every piece of ourselves is confronted by the cross.
All that brought God to the cross, all that nailed Jesus to the tree, all that crucified God, is unmasked as an idol.
When we survey the cross we are thrown out of ourselves and realize our religious assumptions killed the Messiah, our power to mete out punishment lead to the Passion of God!

And I wish more people could be thrown out of themselves when surveying the cross.
I wish that religiosity was not a way to mangle lives and torture God.
I wish that brute force and violence was seen as an enemy of God. Our purity and our power are idols that we will sacrifice God for.
Look at the headlines. Catholic Bishops hiding sexual abuse, hiding rape! They did this to make sure hierarchy and structure appeared holy—so that religious authority would not be questioned. So that purity remained.
And, I don’t want to single out our Catholic sisters and brothers. After all we can admit hard truths at the cross. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was one of the first churches to settle a sexual abuse case.
Look at the headlines. A so-called “Christian” militia was recently arrested by the federal government. They were preparing to confront and kill a cop and then increase the carnage by exploding a dirty bomb at the funeral. Fanatical fantasies of power and violence replaced faith.

But it is not enough to point to the idols manufactured by those who protect pedophile priests. It is not enough to point out the idolatrous sliver in the eye of right wing militants.
What of ourselves? What about you? What about me? After all we are thrown from ourselves—I from myself and you from yourself.
What idols are reveled by the tree on which our God rests?

Do I need alcohol? Do I need drugs? Do I need romantic relationships? Do I need sex? Have they became as indispensable to me as breathing?
Has appearance become my idol? Does my appearance dictate who I am? Do other people’s appearances dictate how I treat them?
Am I needy without meeting the needs of others?
Have I fedishized my title, my calling, my degree, my uniform, my religious garb, my future plans?
Do I refuse to let go of the past even as it crucifies me?
Does violence satisfy some secret, or not so secret, longing of my heart?
Has my faith become a church thing, instead of a God thing?
What golden calf is revealed by the 3 hours of darkness when they crucified our Lord? What do I fear more than I fear God? What do I love more than I love God?
Surveying the cross shakes our assumptions about religious wisdom and strength. It causes us to see our own guilt and culpability in the crucifixion of the Christ. It reveals idols. If God is brought low by wisdom and strength, what does that say about wisdom and strength?

But what of those who come to the cross, not in pious wisdom or strength? What of those who do not view the cross from a place of disinterest, nor do they see the man on the cross as a threat to their idols? What of those who come to the cross because find themselves there too.
They too are thrown out of themselves. Out of their situation. Out of their sin. Out of their painful places and difficult decisions.
When I survey the cross I am thrown out of myself and thrown into God! Into the open arms of Jesus on the cross.

There was once a Jewish boy named Elie (LE) Weisel. He survived the hell of the holocaust. Later he would come to write about his experiences. At this point he has written 54 books and has even won a Nobel Prize in literature.
In his most famous book, Night, he describes a very horrible time amongst the dreadful canvas of horrible times. At one point people were being hung. As the bodies piled up at the foot of the scaffold and the situation became more dire, a young boy was hung, and because he was so malnourished was strangled by the rope instead of having his neck broken by it.
And a man asked, “Where is God now?” And the author “heard a voice within” himself answer, “Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows.”
Yes, this is a word of despair—of tragedy. But it is also the truth we affirm on Good Friday. God hangs from the gallows with us and for us. Foolishness and a stumbling block, yes, but there God is! We are thrown into God.

When I survey the cross I hear God—emptied of all power and might for our sake—intercede for his captors saying, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” I don’t know if there are any sinners in this church other than the one in the pulpit—but I want you to know tonight that God forgives you!
When I survey the cross I see God, even at the hour of His death, looking to a criminal in need of consolation and saying, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” To those caught up in things, who feel you have no chance, know that in Jesus there is always a second chance. Ours is a God of second chances.
When I survey the cross I see God providing His bereaved mother companionship, a son. Those that are lonely can look to your right and to your left, in front of you and behind you, there are brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters.
When I survey the cross I hear God crying out as we all do in our moments of despair, “Why have you forsaken me.” You who are forsaken struggling through the Dark Night of the Soul Jesus wants you to know that Psalm 22 doesn’t end with the word “forsaken!”
When I survey the cross I see parched lips and hear a crackling voice—God crying out in thirst—just as millions of God’s children cry out for clean and dependable sources of water.
When I survey the cross I see God with us to the end. Abandoned? No, never alone, never alone!
When I survey the cross I hear God sending His Spirit on, trusting, always trusting, that God is a merciful Father. Fear God? Fear not!

Not only that! When I survey the cross I hear God saying to the abused “that’s not purity, that’s foolishness.”
When I survey the cross I hear God saying to the victims of violence, “that’s not power, that’s weakness.”
When I survey the cross I am thrown out of myself. When I survey the cross I am thrown into God!
“When I survey the wondrous cross on which the prince of glory died/ My richest gain I count as loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.”

Monday, March 29, 2010

The authority is gone!

This morning, before listening to MLK’s speech on my I-pod, I was woken to further news about the sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. There is a chance it goes all the way up to the top, to the “Vicar of Christ.”
Well, this “Vicar of St. John’s” was none too impressed by the Pope’s response. Essentially, “aren’t those Bishops of mine naughty”… and, “man, there are a lot of rumors out there.”
I mean we’re talking about rape, rape of children!
It feels like people in authority just don’t care. It’s like this “too big to fail” mentality has been taken up by people we genuinely trust. It’s like authority means never having to say you’re sorry. I mean I don’t like “the Pope’s bulldog” turned Pope, but I figure if you’ve got a bulldog the least you can do with it is use it to protect children!
I know half a generation turned counter-culture after Nixon’s breach of trust was revealed, and the war in Vietnam was called into question. I wonder if we’re at another such moment.
My generation has seen some pretty big shifts in the world, and they definitely don’t make those in charge, or those institutions that put them there, look very good.
There was the dot-com bust and the impeachment of President Clinton. Then we had democracy called into question with a close election in 2000 that some claimed was rigged. Then the myth of America being a safe place was stripped from us on 9/11. Then there was the half-truths that got us into Iraq. Then there was the abuses of Abu Ghraib. Then there was a more popularized understanding of how our actions affect the environment. Then there was the giant economic downturn. Then there has been the response to the 2008 election of America’s first African American president—people have been throwing more and more partisan, and sometimes racist, vitriol out there and people are actually turning violent!
And now the most recognized figure of global Christianity may be directly involved in a cover up of child rape in his home country and indirectly involved in such actions throughout Europe, and perhaps the world.
I mean… I mean… I mean, I was raised by fairly non-conformist parents—I affectionately refer to them as a biker and a hippie—I listen to Alice’s Restaurant every Thanksgiving—because I wanted to end the war and stuff… but you know!
You know! I kinda held out hope that those people and systems that had been given authority would at least use them wisely. In fact, I would go so far as to say I had some affection for authority figures—my way of rebelling against the morals and norms of my parents I suppose—but I think its getting pretty hard to do…
…You can get anything you want, at Alice's Restaurant
Excepting Alice
You can get anything you want, at Alice's Restaurant
Walk right in it's around the back
Just a half a mile from the railroad track
You can get anything you want, at Alice's Restaurant

Da da da da da da da dum
At Alice's Restaurant

The Meta-narrative is broken?

This morning, as I exercised, I listened to Martin Luther King’s sermon “Paul's Letter to American Christians.” In it he goes off on the following trope:
“For many years I have longed to be able to come to see you. I have heard so much of you and of what you are doing. I have heard of the fascinating and astounding advances that you have made in the scientific realm. I have heard of your dashing subways and flashing airplanes. Through your scientific genius you have been able to dwarf distance and place time in chains. You have been able to carve highways through the stratosphere. So in your world you have made it possible to eat breakfast in New York City and dinner in Paris, France. I have also heard of your skyscraping buildings with their prodigious towers steeping heavenward. I have heard of your great medical advances, which have resulted in the curing of many dread plagues and diseases, and thereby prolonged your lives and made for greater security and physical well-being. All of that is marvelous. You can do so many things in your day that I could not do in the Greco-Roman world of my day. In your age you can travel distances in one day that took me three months to travel. That is wonderful. You have made tremendous strides in the area of scientific and technological development.
But America, as I look at you from afar, I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress. It seems to me that your moral progress lags behind your scientific progress. Your poet Thoreau used to talk about "improved means to an unimproved end." How often this is true. You have allowed the material means by which you live to outdistance the spiritual ends for which you live. You have allowed your mentality to outrun your morality. You have allowed your civilization to outdistance your culture. Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but through your moral and spiritual genius you have failed to make of it a brotherhood. So America, I would urge you to keep your moral advances abreast with your scientific advances.”--
Now, this isn’t the only sermon in which he wonders at the scientific advances of his age (and how much more our own?). He is consistently impressed by skyscraping buildings.
As a caveat he calls on his listeners to move forward in thinking, in morality, in matters of the heart, to a point at which we truly match our physical sciences with the science of the spirit.
But, being influenced in my thinking by Paul, Augustine, and Luther I know humans are both dust and spirit. Even at the heights of our powers and even our morality there is a propensity to do evil.
And then I remember my own vision for the world. The closest thing I’ve ever written to a dream for the time I reside in. I re-write Genesis chapter 22 to speak to a time in which religion and violence have become, for some, synonyms:

“And Abraham weeps, and puts down his knife, and comes to his children and hugs them tightly. And he suggests that they bind themselves to an oath, saying, “Yours is a generation unlike mine. In my day only God could knock down the tower of Babel,” and he picks up the sacrificial knife off the ground, “now 19 men armed only with these can do similar. Sectarians have been unbound throughout Babylon, and it is in flames. Man’s consumption can cause a new flood and his bombs can bring Armageddon. Cuneiform tablets and riders on horses have been replaced with the keyboard and instant communication and so being respectful to one’s neighbor is now a global affair.” With that he throws the knife onto the altar, “Yours is a generation where individuals can impact the whole world as never before. You carry a responsibility that previously was the burden and pleasure of only the elites and the statesmen of the world. We have become god-like and never even noticed. The myth of redemptive violence, a myth I unwittingly have given to each of you, must be extinguished. So bind upon your hearts a promise to shake off the nihilism of violence.”—“Religiously Motivated Violence and the Akedah,” in An Uncomfortable Bit of Rope” page 92.
And I wonder if I am simply diagnosing, in more mythical terms, the same malaises of our age—simply pointing to the shadowy cloud that billowed from those sky-scrapping buildings instead of the fact that they scrape the sky. King, in the 50’s looked at technology with wonder and hoped for a morality to match. We, in this millennium, look with horror at our morality and don’t even realize “we have become god-like.”
The world King read he read in a prophetic way—projecting forward that which was to come, a mix of hope for what is and anguish for what will be. We, on the other hand, are living amongst the rubble and in the midst of the anguish, with only a peep of hope, like that faint feather resting in Pandora’s box.
So, the questions are: Is this continuity or discontinuity? Is the myth of progress, either moral or material, still something that is worth talking about? Or have we reached an age at which we may no longer reach for the heights of beauty, truth, honor, pity and compassion? Is the only question remaining the very question William Faulkner spoke against in his Nobel prize speech, “When am I going to be blown up?”