Saturday, August 23, 2014

Falling, Rising

Scripture for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost includes Genesis 45:1-15; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:10-28.

The Episcopal Church expresses its dependence upon the Bible, its commitment to taking the Bible both seriously and joyfully, by a disciplined hearing of holy scripture each Sunday in the parish eucharist, and each weekday in the offering of morning and evening prayer.

Sunday by Sunday, readings are chosen—a text from the Hebrew Bible, a psalm from the Hebrew Bible, a portion from the letters (and other writings) of the Christian scriptures, and a portion of one of the four Gospels—chosen not by the pastor locally, but by the wider Church. And by “wider” I mean beyond the Episcopal Church, for the table of readings that we use here on Sundays has been set by a consortium of denominations so that Christian unity may be promoted.

And by language like “setting the table” I mean to acknowledge that in this holy meal that draws us together, it is not just bread and wine that are offered, but also the food and drink of ancient wisdom, pithy proverbs, puzzling parables, prophetic oracles, apocalyptic visions, compelling narratives of holy lives, poetic reach towards the transcendent, and the witness of amazing grace revealing the holiness of each moment of life.

The Word becomes flesh and dwells among us. Jesus Christ the Word made flesh shapes his likeness in us. The Holy Spirit hovers among us, dwells within each heart, her grace and wisdom nurturing from birth and baptism each soul’s growth into the full stature of Christ.

On a good day. I mean, that quick sketch of spiritual growth sounds way too smooth and easy, doesn’t it? But if I’m right in the claim that every moment is holy, no moment devoid of the grace of Christ and the presence of the Spirit, then at least we might agree that much of our spiritual growth is hidden, much of it eludes our understanding and analysis, and much of it seems to resemble (to recall our Lord’s summertime parables) a garden that requires a load of manure in order to do its yielding, and a healthy regard for the tenacity of weeds. And, to borrow from our late summer pilgrimage with Joseph, the favored child sold into slavery by his brothers, the gifted young man who went down into the pit, down into Egypt, down into Pharoah’s dungeon, only to rise to the pinnacle of power in ancient Egypt, we see presented the familiar human pattern that first you fall, then you rise. No death, no resurrection.

If the menu at our Sunday banquet is not only bread and wine but also the Word of holy scripture, there comes also at the start an appetizer, the collect of the day. A collect gets its nickname from its purpose, to collect all our attention deficits and invite the harnessing of our hearts and minds to the Word we’re about to hear.

These little treasures of prayer trace a bloodline that goes back to the 4th and 5th centuries, others from the middle ages, some from catholic missals, others from the Protestant reformers of the 16th century. These prayers sometimes have about them an air of Where’s Waldo, as they catch wind of a great theme that blows through the readings that day, and invite us to listen for it.

And often, as in today’s collect, there’s a gracious touch of catechism: we learn today that at the heart of the spiritual journey is thankful receiving of the redeeming work of Jesus, in particular the grace to follow daily in the steps of his holy life. That desire to follow him is what we bring to the equation of spiritual growth—and this collect makes it clear that we bring this desire not from obligation or guilt, but from appreciation and gratitude. And right from the get-go, the collect teaches us, the freedom we need to have this desire is itself a result, a fruit, of Jesus’s redeeming work. We love because he first loves us.

And it is for the replenishing of love that we come to this table that is set for us. The sabbath rest we choose by coming here repairs us from the week that was, prepares us for the week that comes.
This past week has been especially brutal. Vicious genocide in Northern Iraq. The ongoing pathos of unending violence between Israelis and Palestinians (neither side willing to feel pathos, empathy, for the other). And the shooting death of an African American teenager by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri.

Yet, with all this violence, nothing prepared us for the news, last week, of Robin Williams’s death. Patch Adams, Mrs. Doubtfire, Armand in The Bird Cage, Mr. Keating in Dead Poet’s Society, Air Force DJ Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning, Vietnam… Robin Williams long ago insinuated himself into my personal pantheon of gifted actors I admire. Beyond zany, able to slip from serious to crazy in the twinkling of an eye, when he was in role he could do anything, and he did, including tenderness, steadfastness, wonderment, fearlessness, quiet intensity, and, of course, crack-up antics.

Hearing that he had taken his own life, I wondered, “Why would someone who seemed able to do anything do that?” As if a talented actor, in particular a zany comedian, should be immune from despair. As if clowns don’t cry. It didn’t take me long to realize I should know better.

We live in a culture that mistakes entertainment for news, and therefore treats everything that happens to entertainers as if it were newsworthy. Our culture also exploits personal tragedy. Believing these things, I wanted to impose a buffer around this man’s death, to let its sadness and violence recede and perhaps revisit it all later, when it would feel less raw. When I heard myself, thick in denial, I recognized how this compartmentalizing couldn’t be an option for countless people who have lost a loved one to suicide: there’s no arm’s length option for them, and there isn’t for any of us. How many of us have almost lost someone to this form of death? How many of us have almost lost our own life this way? And what gradations of self-directed violence are there, short of calling in the coroner? What degrees of self-neglect and self-abuse count in a countdown to serious illness? For how many of us does the gap between the true self and the self we show to others grow wider and wider?
I read recently an interview with Ittetsu Nemoto, a Buddhist priest in Japan who counsels suicidal people and grieving survivors. His words are so simple and direct. “Suicide is really tough. The killer and the killed are the same person, so you don’t know what to make of it. You don’t know where to direct your anger. The wound stays with you for a long time.”

If ever there is a moment to recall John Donne’s way with words, it’s in the wake of a very public self-killing like this one. Hear both the familiar words from his Meditation XVII, and the less familiar (and grammatically challenging) words that follow it:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbours. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did, for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by and made fit for God by that affliction. If a man carry treasure in bullion, or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current money, his treasure will not defray him as he travels. Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Another man may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell, that tells me of his affliction, digs out and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another's danger I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.”

St. Paul, writing to the Christians in Rome, insists that our security lies in the gifts God has planted in us, and the call God issues to us to use these gifts to reach out to people who most need to be immersed in the mercy of God.

Security likely has little to do with protecting us from danger, risk, or affliction. Joseph’s long saga of falling and rising, falling and rising, calls us to imagine security being mostly about resilience and flexibility and trust.

And what do we make of John Donne’s attitude towards affliction? It is a treasure… that we don’t want, but once we have it, our attitude towards it helps shape the future, both our own and that of others around us. Robin Williams’s wife reports that he had been diagnosed as having Parkinson’s disease. I wonder if he knew people, as I do and as many of you do, who live with this disease yet find there is still gold to be mined from life.

In understanding the complexity of suicide, must there not be multiple insecurities that account for the anguish and despair that can shut tight the windows and doors of the soul?

The collect today calls us to secure ourselves—windows and doors open-- by allowing Jesus Christ to free our ability to receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work, and by allowing the Holy Spirit to free in us the desire to follow Jesus daily, step by step, not knowing exactly where that takes us, but knowing him, and not controlling the journey as much as trusting the falling and the rising, the falling and the rising.

As Buddhist wisdom puts it, “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.”

(For the interview with Ittetsu Nemoto, see the Spring 2014 issue of “Tricycle”.)