Thursday, February 25, 2010

Lenten Reflections: Part 2


The rocky edifices of my world are beautiful precisely because they are broken. Their very appearance above ground is the consequence of various geologic cataclysms, a shifting of tectonic plates, a volcanic eruption, or a glacial assault upon the earth. The great rocks themselves are marked by fissures, caves, and niches formed by wind, water erosion, and the insistent wearing of time. These rocks are marked by ages. Their beauty resides in the paradox of strength and brokenness. How can such solidity be fractured? Are the wind and water mightier than the rock? Was the seemingly impregnable stone fortress flawed, concealing secret faults, weaknesses waiting to be exploited? Or is the stone rather personalized by an inner consent to be broken, a submission to sacrifice for some more tender, even more human, inclination? The fissures, caves, and niches not only transform a flat surface of uniform disinterest into a complex portrait of aesthetic wonder, they offer shelter from sun, wind, and rain. Ironically, they shield the more vulnerable living creatures of the desert from the very same forces that break the rocks so that they may afford the shelter.

That the Rock of Ages should be cleft is astounding. If the Rock is cleft by a force superior to itself, that would be the end of faith. It would mean the power of chaos triumphs over order, the power of nothingness (Karl Barth called it, das Nachtige) triumphs over Being. But suppose the Rock of Ages is not cleft against its will. Perhaps it is not subjected to such breakage by weakness but by the vulnerability of its own love. Hesed. “His mercy endures forever.” Suppose the Rock of Ages is not cleft by meaninglessness and chaos, but rather is cleft for a purpose the Rock deems worthy of such a sacrifice. The Rock consents to be broken. What purpose could justify the breaking of God?

“Rock of ages cleft for me.” If the foundation of reality is only strength, then where is the place for my weakness? Where can I hide on the stony surface of such a reality? I need the strength of the Rock to save me with its power, but I also need the vulnerability of the cleft which is its caring, the costly caring, in which I take refuge. Neither power nor vulnerability standing alone will offer refuge. Love and power must be conjoined in the God of my salvation – the God who is both rock and person, the rock with the power to shield, but with a cleft which is his “wounded side.”

God is infinitely more than human. Heaven and earth cannot contain the Lord. He cannot be confined in a temple, labeled with a name, or defined by an image. God is more vast that the universe itself. Yet, God’s greatness rests not in vastness but rather in God’s willingness to become human, to take on flesh, to subject himself to the frailty of mortal life so that we might not be alone. The greatness of God’s compassion exceeds the greatness of God’s might. God opens in vulnerable mercy to enfold us. “Let me hide myself in thee.”

It is my very self I need to hide. It is my very self because that is what is threatened by the world, which is often indifferent, often even hostile to my presence here. It is not just my assets or my reputation. It is my very self that is at risk of being crushed or distorted by demands, manipulations, and judgments, crushed or distorted by fate, ill health, personal calamity. The person God made me to be is in danger of destruction or distortion by a world that wants me to be either entirely different or entirely absent. If I am not sufficient in myself to deliver myself, then where can I turn but to God? And so I do. I recite the words of Isaiah,

Surely it is God who saves me,
I will trust in him and not be afraid
for he is my stronghold and my sure defense
and he will be my savior.
Isaiah 12: 2

Or I center myself with a one word prayer, murmuring the name of God alone, resting in God and trusting that God holds my life in his hand. I would rather hold my life in my own hand, but my hand is too small. It is not strong enough.

There is a poignant solace in taking refuge in the cleft of the rock. God affords me refuge and that is good. But for the cleft to be ther for me, God has must be broken. A rift in God must occur in order to afford me that refuge. I did not break God. Even my sin is not so powerful as that. God is broken open by God’s own love. The Buddhist teacher, Chogyam Trungpa, used to speak of the heart being “broken open.” Just so, God is broken open by God’s own love to afford me refuge and that makes the place of refuge a place where I know I am loved, where I am valued enough to endure the fracture of mortality. That’s is what God shows me in Jesus on the cross – a God willing to walk into death with me, a God willing to descend into hell to bring me back from it.

I can prostrate myself in awe of the Rock of Ages like a Pleistocene man before El Capitan. But awe is not love. I love the Rock of Ages because it is cleft. When I find myself unworthy to breathe the earth’s air, I find my worth in knowing the Rock was cleft for me.

I wish I were more often moved to reverence and wonder by the glories of creation. But I am not. I am a prisoner of ego. I live in a small world of projects, plans, and petrifications of the heart. God’s glory only occasionally gets my attention and then it does not last. But fear gets my attention. It gets my attention so well, I would not blame God if God threatened me daily. But God does not. I cannot recall once being threatened by God – by preachers of hellfire and damnation, yes. But not by God. And the hellfire and damnation seemed too remote to pose an immediate threat. So whence cometh the fear that focuses my mind?

Life is unstable. Buddha said as much in the 2nd Noble Truth. Heraclitus echoed him in his teaching on flux. Ecclesiastes despaired over it. A forgotten seat belt, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, the tremors of the earth or the economy or the emotions of those we love, all these variables can bring a grandiose life to rubble and ruin. Something as tiny as a blood clot or a bit of plaque broken loose from an artery will wipe away the miracle of the human mind. In John Irving’s novel, The World According To Garp, when the hero was a little boy wading in the ocean, his mother would call out warnings to watch out for the undertow. He misheard her, thought she was warning of a malevolent monster “the undertoad.” He misheard her word but caught her meaning. It feels as if the lion prowls, dash Nacthige undoes, the chaos monster scatters the sand paintings of our lives and loves. That is when I need to hide myself in the cleft of the rock. And I do.

Over 60 years, so many disasters have almost happened. God has delivered me from most of them. Others have happened, and God has delivered me through them. I would far rather be delivered from than through. But the point is to be delivered, to see the sky clear and walk the earth again. The storms come. The storms pass by as we nest in the invisible castle, secure in the crag and the fortress of God, powerful as the granite mountain, caring as the wounded side. Like the rocky edifices of Nevada, God is beautiful in God’s brokenness.

Copyright 2010 Dan T. Edwards

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Lenten Reflections: Part 1

Dear Blog Readers,
God has wonderously saved me so many times, and I have prayed so often "Lord open my lips, and my mouth will proclaim your praise," but I have not praised God an iota of a percent of what God's saving mercies deserve. This year I want to devote the season of Lent to praising God with a series of devotional reflections on the hymn Rock of Ages. The lyrics of that song have captivated my heart these past months. I am finding them far richer than I had known, full of paradoxical and evocative metaphors. So my plan is to work my way through this hymn with reflections annotating the verses. If they are helpful to you in your lenten observance, so much the better. But I write because God is good and I am compelled to proclaim God's praise. In this first reflection, I will write of the very opening words "Rock of Ages."


I live in a land of crags, cliffs, buttes, and stone escarpments. My Honda CRV rolls up thousands of miles each year as I roam the Great Basin’s Mojave Desert, once a vast inland sea, now parched beneath the bluest skies on Earth, a land now home to coyotes, lizards, jack rabbits, and me – a nomad bishop with a Bible, prayer book, and shepherd’s staff in the back seat. 312 mountain ranges divide the territory I traverse to visit churches in the scattered centers of mining, ranching, and farming. Hawks, ravens, and eagles fly overhead.

This land speaks. Sky, raptors, Joshua trees are its words. But the greatest word, hardest and truest, of this bare and barren land is rock. From the vertical cliffs of Zion National Park on my east to Yosemite’s El Capitan on my west, rock speaks a voluminous silence. Passing through the stony arroyos, I feel the holiness of a cathedral. The rock formations of Cathedral Gorge make it explicit and tell me this intuition of holiness is not just my idiosyncrasy.

One evening, just before sunset, a low hill, but a steep one, caught my eye. It was a pile of black stone, no doubt volcanic. The earth’s depths send messengers of rhyolite, basalt, and pumice. I pulled over and scrambled up the hill, standing there looking out over the plane as the sun set behind me and the shadow of night extended into the softening air. But the stone did not extend. It did not soften. It was immovably there. That is the rock’s way.

“Rock of ages” – what does it mean? A rock that has endured the ages. A rock that the ages rest upon. The rock which arises from the ages. It is an evocatively multivalent phrase, a symbol that goes back to some of the very oldest verses of our sacred text. Half way around the world, thousands of years ago, rock spoke to people in another desert. It told them something about God, something they needed to hear, as I need to hear it now. Perhaps if we listen closely to their words, we may glean something of their experience, the experience of simpler people, closer to the earth, maybe closer to life. Perhaps we may learn something that will save us from becoming lost in the shifting sands of post-modernity.

In you O lord, have I taken refuge
Let me never be ashamed . . . .
Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe;
You are my crag and my stronghold.
Psalm 71: 1, 3

Verse 3 must have been a recurrent longing. “Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe.”The same words appear verbatim in Psalm 31, v. 3. It is a cry for deliverance and protection.

O Lord, I call to you;
my Rock, do not be deaf to my cry;
lest if you do not hear me,
I become like those who go down to the Pit.
Psalm 28

The Psalms give voice to the variety and complexity of human emotion in a primitive rawness unequalled in any other ancient text, more than Roman odes, more than Greek drama. No passion is more pronounced in the Psalms than fear, the primal cry “Save me.” It is not fear of God. It is fear of the world and a scurrying to God for safety. “Protect me, O God, for I take refuge in you.” Psalm 16: 1; “O Lord my God, I take refuge in you; save and deliver me from all who pursue me.” Psalm 7:1.

When help was not forthcoming, the people of old complained bitterly. “Why do you stand so far off, O Lord and hide yourself in time of trouble?” Psalm 10:1; “How long O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” Psalm 13:1. But the prevailing theme is expressed in the rock Psalms. “Let us shout for joy to the Rock of our salvation.” Psalm 95:1; and :

I love you, O Lord my strength,
O Lord my stronghold, my crag, and my haven.
My God, my rock in whom I put my trust,
my shield, the horn of my salvation, and my refuge;
you are worthy of praise.
I will call upon the Lord
and so shall I be saved from my enemies.
Psalm 18: 1- 3

Do the rocks still speak to us? Do the stone escarpments of the Mojave say to me what the crags of the Sinai said the Psalmists?

Modern people assumed a heroic posture, a Promethean defiance. When atheism chided the religious for our fear of the world, we were ashamed. If we kept to our religion at all, it was an ethical religion of which we need not be ashamed or perhaps a cheerful religion of celebrating what a wonderful world we have been given. We did not want to admit to anything infantile. We did not want to admit we are afraid of the dark, the thunder, the shadow on the x-ray, the fragility of the eco-system, the avarice that devours an economy wiping out life savings, the fine print in our health insurance policies. We did not want to admit that life still scared us.

I will not judge the hearts of others. I don’t know what happens in those secret chambers. But I, for one, am still afraid. Granted, I may be more afraid than others. I have anxiety disorder. In my worst bouts, I have rolled xanax like prayer beads in my pocket, afraid of sundown for no reason I could articulate. I have also known fears that had real causes. I have seen my life teeter on the precipice. In the words of T. S. Eliot, “I was, in short, afraid.” A religion that begins with the assumption of human self-sufficiency -- a “religion of happy mindedness” William James called it – will not do for me. I have no need of a polite tea with God. Truth be told, I tend to forget God when I feel self-sufficient. I have prayed fervently at times, but my most unadulteratedly sincere prayer has always been, “Help!” I do not long for the beauty of the Lord. The law of the Lord does not delight my heart. I am Peter sinking on the sea.

But when (Peter) saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink
he cried, saying Lord save me. And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand and caught him . . . .
Matthew 14: 30-31

“Rock of ages.” “Who is our God, but the Lord? Who is the Rock, except our God?” Psalm 18:32. “He alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold, so that I shall not be greatly shaken.” Psalm 62:2.

The Psalmists are not being spiritual. They are not concerned about the afterlife. They are afraid of the perils haunting this dusty earth. Just so, many of us are afraid our children will be sent to war, afraid of tornadoes, afraid of pandemics. The Psalmists, in their fear, remembered the rocks of the Sinai as we might remember the rocks of the Mojave. The rocks spoke to them about God.

Part of what the rocks said about God, who created them to express something of the divine nature, is that God is strong. The power of God works wonders. One can take refuge in the strength of God because God is stronger, vastly stronger, than the forces that assail us. I have been saved by God’s surprises again and again. I know others have not apparently been saved. For that I have no answer, only hope for some future redemption that I cannot yet see. But my experience and what I have seen in the lives of others is that God’s power moves inexplicably in the affairs of this world effecting gracious ends. The power of God sometimes seems to intervene from outside. But it is not really an intervention. God is already here, already the rock solid foundation of reality itself. We can take refuge in that. Even if what we want is deliverance from a particular threat and we do not receive the deliverance we wanted, there is still a rock solid foundation to reality, a place in which we can take refuge – if that foundation is kindly, if that foundation cherishes us and has not cast us off.

There is something more to the rock metaphor than strength. There is fidelity. God’s love for us is as unshakeable as rock. The word most expressive of God’s heart in the Hebrew scriptures is hesed. We usually translate hesed as “loving kindness.” But the word has more to do with dependability than sentimentality. It means a love you can count on, a bond unbreakable and sure.

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his mercy endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of Gods,
for his mercy endures forever . . . .
Psalm 136

And so the Psalm continues recounting God’s act of creation and his assistance to people throughout history, echoing again and again, a full 26 times, “his mercy endures forever.”

The foundation of reality is merciful and gracious. Our human foibles and the vicissitudes of history cannot shake that foundation. The love of God cannot be defeated even by our unlovableness. We may refuse to love God or each other, but we cannot stop God from loving us. Even our deaths will not end God’s love for us and what God loves cannot finally die – not if God is the rock solid foundation of reality.

I have imagined that people who lived as long before the Pslamists as the Psalmists lived before us must have been awed by the majesty of stone. I have imagined them worshiping a stone mountain like El Capitan in Yosemite, Northern California.

My fathers bowed
before your granite face
sun crowned terrifying.
But what had they worthy
for sacrifice to you
gargantuan monolith?
What could they offer
colossal you who already consumed
the very sky?

The Psalmists saw such stone not as idol but as icon, as a sign of the divine nature, a silent word of God. That word spoke awesome majesty, a place of refuge, and a promise of God’s eternal mercy. When “the changes and the chances of this life” are shifting beneath my feet, I need to hear that word.
Copyright Dan Edwards 2010

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

All True Christians

“All True Christians Are Pro-Life,” thus said a bumper sticker in Carson City.

I am indebted to this bumper sticker for keeping me entertained for days, spinning out lines of inquiry and wonder at such a curiously arrogant assertion of dogma. These are a few of the things I wonder about.

Who decides what opinions you have to hold in order to be a “true Christian?” For centuries, we worked out our definitions of orthodoxy in ecumenical councils. Bishops from all over the Christian world met in prayerful deliberation, guided by theologians, mystics, and people of noted sanctity. They came to a consensus definition of the faith. In those days, the statements of the ecumenical councils set the limits on Christian belief. There was a lot going on in the Protestant Reformation, but the theological heart of it was the claim that the definitions articulated by the councils had become too precise. Each person, the reformers insisted, should be given a copy of the sacred text, written in his or her own language, and allowed to find their own understanding of the truth guided by the indwelling Holy Spirit -- not an ecclesiastical hierarchy. That opened up the possibilities of “true Christianity” to a radically wider array of opinions. What may be new in our time is the extension of this individuality to the right of each individual not only to discern his or her own interpretation but to declare that interpretation to be orthodoxy itself and pronounce anathema on anyone who has reached a different interpretation.

So who defines a “true Christian” today? Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition took most of the pending legislation of the 1990’s, prescribed a right position on that legislation, and claimed that any legislator who voted wrong on any issue was not a “true Christian.” But how did Ralph get that authority? He couldn’t even get himself elected Lieutenant Governor of Georgia. Yet he claimed a greater authority than the Council of Nicaea.

It used to be so simple. For Paul, if you could say “Jesus is Lord,” you were a true Christian even if you had some harebrained ideas. Eventually that 3-word affirmation grew into the Apostle’s Creed, and finally the Nicene Creed. In the 4th Century, being baptized and saying the Nicene Creed were enough to call yourself a true Christian even if you could not have passed Ralph Reed’s gauntlet of legislative issues test. Who decides whether someone is a “true Christian?” Maybe we could go back to objective standards like the Bible and the Ancient Creeds. Otherwise, we are in the hands of the manufacturers of bumper stickers.

But what about the substance of the claim itself? Are all true Christians “pro-life?” The threshold issue is: what do we mean by “pro-life?” If it means a basic orientation toward life and engagement with the world as opposed to life-denying asceticism, then I have to agree that a true Christian is pro-life. We are an Easter people, a people of the Resurrection. So we are for life – no doubt about it. I would think being pro-life compels one to be an ardent advocate of the Millenium Development Goals, to eradicate death-dealing malaria, tuberculosis, HIV-AIDS, and malnutrition. A pro-life person sends Nets For Life to Kenya. Since life depends on health, surely one who is pro-life must oppose toxic waste dumping, nuclear proliferation, global warming, and smoking. Are all of these positions essential to being a true Christian? Is that what the bumper sticker means?

Of course, that is not at all what “pro-life” means in American politics. It means support for government regulation of a women’s choice to carry a pregnancy to term as opposed to abort. I have no doubt whatsoever that a true Christian can be “pro-life” in that sense. I know many of them. But is that moral stance so indisputable as to be the core of Christian faith? It is probably not in Scripture (one Old Testament verse is possibly related– but it’s a stretch). It is definitely not in the Creeds. It is not an ancient dogma of the Church. It was never addressed by an ecumenical council. The Episcopal Church’s Resolution on abortion is “pro-life” in that it regards all life as sacred, it holds any abortion to be a “tragic choice,” and says abortion should never be done for trivial reasons – but it finally affirms that this is an intimate moral decision to be made by a woman with pastoral guidance and moral counseling – not something to be regulated by the government. So, if being “pro-life” means I have to support legislation, I would have to defy the teachings of my church in order to be a “true Christian.” Yet, so many of the Epistles and the writings of Church Fathers like Ignatius of Antioch and Clement of Rome say that a true Christian respects the teachings of the Church. The bumper sticker does put many of us on the horns of dilemma.

How do we define a “true Christian?” What are the standards? My son-in-law, an ordained presbyter of the Methodist Church, recently “became a fan” of a Face Book page supporting gay marriage. A friend wrote him a lengthy exposition explaining that homosexuality is a sin, so she could not understand how a Christian could support such a thing. She was making a host of major assumptions which many of us who think of ourselves as Christians do not share – for example the basic function of the Bible as a rule book, the interpretation of ritual purity violations as “sins” even though both Testaments clearly treat them differently, the idea that forbidding one specific sexual practice implies the prohibition of others, the idea that rules explicitly directed against men can be extended to women, the notion that most ritual purity rules were superseded by the gospel but a select few were not, that the whole of moral revelation was complete in the Scripture, etc.

Again, there are clearly thousands of people on both sides of this issue –thousands who have been baptized, who receive the sacraments regularly, who recite the Ancient Creeds, and revere the Holy Scriptures, all saying “Jesus is Lord” and meaning it – yet who disagree about the morality of homosexuality. Is it possible for these people to disagree and yet recognize each other as “true Christians?” Yes, if . . . .

And here I gulp at what I feel compelled to say. In this post-modern age of devout subjectivism, I know this sounds hopelessly conservative. We can do what our forebears did. We can disagree and have high-charged energetic provocative conversations about the implications of the faith, but only if we embrace a strong orthodoxy and a vigorous orthopraxy.

The orthodoxy consists of a commitment to the sacred text, our holy Scriptures, as the starting point of discussion; a commitment to the ancient creeds as the framework, the language structure for our image of God; and a willingness to listen respectfully to the teachers, saints, poets, and sages of our tradition more than the pundits of today. The orthopraxy consists of a commitment to the Summary of the Law. To love God with all our hearts is to love a mystery, to revere a mystery, and so to be humble in the presence of that mystery. To love my neighbor as myself is to give him what is his due and what I expect in return, a decent respect for my integrity and my conscience. It occurs to me that adherence to the Summary of the Law might imply a certain reticence in what I paste to my bumper.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

If The Church Were A Safe Place

"Simon Stoker (not his real name), stand up! Your eyes are red with drink." So thundered the preacher from the pulpit of the rural church of my childhood.

I love the church. It is in serving here I feel most alive. But I often do not feel at home. I often do not feel safe and I suspect that's why more and more people keep their distance from us. The church is not safe because of a spirit of judgment. I do not mean the willingness to discern right from wrong or speak out for justice. I mean a frozen, stiff spirit of moral superiority established by condeming others.

The criteria for judgment vary. In the little congregation where I grew up, drinking was the number one thing to judge. "Oh Lord, please straighten out my brother in law who is a sorry alcoholic and has wronged my sister and their children so pitifullly."

In the schismatic churches, it is judgment of LGBT people. In liberal circles, the folks who disagree with them about inclusiveness are labelled "hate-mongers." In total ministry circles, beware of using words like "rector," "pastoral," even "diocese." In traditional structures, they still call locally trained priests "Canon 9" -- which was abolished years ago. Then there are the high church and low church folks who hold each other in ecclesiastical disdain.

We seem to compulsively generate criteria we can use to build ourselves up by tearing others down. Again, my problem is not with convictions held, but with the use of convictions as swords and shields.

If the church were a safe place, we could welcome more people, serve more compassionately, and show the world God's unconditional love.