Monday, July 24, 2017

A Crisis of Faith

The Reverend Christopher Hogin
A Crisis of Faith: Genesis 28:10-19; Psalm 139:1-11, 22-23
The Episcopal Church of the Ascension
July 23, 2017

What happens when our beliefs get rocked to the core? What happens when everything we are certain of gets turns upside down? How do we cope?
            Barbara Ehrenreich is a journalist, political activist, and staunch atheist. Some of you may have read her bestseller, Nickle and Dimed. She wrote a memoir a few years, but not one you’d expect. The memoir is not a diatribe on the economic or political system of our country. Instead, she reflects on two events during her younger years that shook her deeply.
            The first incident happened when she and her family visited a horse show. Bored, she wandered into a nearby forest. Everything appeared normal. Then it all changed. Something happened. For a brief moment a layer of reality peeled away. The forest was no longer a forest. It was a living pulsating entity. The tree was no longer just a tree, but fully alive. She saw vivid details, as though staring into an ultra-super-sonic high definition television: it was a world beneath a world where language and words no longer held meaning, but existed on an alternate plane. Then everything snapped back to normal. The forest was just a forest. The tree just a tree.
            Ehrenreich never told anyone what happened. She tried forgetting about it, until it happened again. This time she was seventeen years old. She, her brother, and friend spent the night camping in Lone Pine, California. The next morning, she awoke and wandered out into the desert. There, she once again experienced a peeling away of reality, only this time she saw the world flaming into life. Fires raged everywhere, not in a good or bad way, but in an alive sort of way. In the midst of it all she had an encounter with what she describes as, “an encounter with something living” that transcended beyond all human categories. Like the first time, the vision soon ended.   
            Ehrenreich never spoke of either of these events. She’s a staunch atheist, and such encounters, or “mystical experiences” went against her deeply held beliefs as an atheist. For the longest time she dismissed these encounters as a form of delusion or mental illness. It wasn’t until she was in her late sixties, and a breast cancer survivor, that she confronted her past. Although she never releases her atheism, she finds herself wanting to know scientifically what happened. As she exclaims, “I don’t want to believe, I want to know.” (As a side note, I find it odd she entitles her book, Living With A Wild God).
            Let me tell you about a second woman, a woman on the very opposite end of the theological spectrum from Barbara Eherenreich. This woman came from Albania, but she changed the world. She opened up a home for the death and dying, first in India, and then in impoverished places all over the world. She won the Nobel Peace Prize, and is a model of faith and piety for so many people. She died in 1997, but was proclaimed a Saint by Pope Francis in September of last year.
            Yet Mother Teresa had her own secret that she kept hidden. This staunch pillar of faith endured a crisis of faith herself for almost forty years. She wrote the following to a friend:    
“Where is my Faith—even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness—My
God—how painful is this unknown pain—I have no Faith—I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart -- & make me suffer untold agony.”

Both women had their world rocked, and their fundamental beliefs challenged: one questioned her atheism, the other questioned her faith. Both were changed in some way with an encounter: one by encountering an unexplainable entity, the other enduring emptiness, or more accurately, a dark night of the soul.
            Although we may never experience the same level of intensity as Mother Teresa and Barbara Ehrenreich, their story is our story. We too will have encounters with the unexpected, maybe not mystic visions, but certainly encounters with God. We also will have those dark nights of the soul. When our faith appears hollow and empty. Where even sitting here in church does nothing. Both instances reveal a bit of the human condition, which is our world often becomes disoriented.
            This is why I find comfort our reading: in Genesis with Jacob’s Ladder, and the Psalm 139. In both readings there’s intimacy. God is always ever-present. With Jacob, who has mystical vision embedded in his dream, God is literally standing beside him, much in the same why I believe God was in the presence of Barbara Ehrenreich during her mystical experiences (something I know she’d vehemently disagree with). At the same time, the writer of Psalm 139 [see below] appears to come from a place of great pain. The writer realizes that no matter what happens to us, or where we are in life we cannot hide from God, even when we don’t feel God’s presence, God is always there. Carl Jung had a plaque above his door which read, “bidden or unbidden, God is always there.” The fact that Mother Teresa named her pain, named her struggle, and wrestled with her darkness and doubt show a tremendous amount of strength, courage, and faith.
            We are not alone. I promise you we are not. No matter the dark nights of the soul that awaken us at 3 am in the midst of fear, or in moments of extreme doubt. God is with us, no matter who we are, what we’ve done, or what we are going through. We are not alone

Psalm 139: 1-11, 22-23
Domine, probasti
1 Lord, you have searched me out and known me; *
you know my sitting down and my rising up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
2 You trace my journeys and my resting-places *
and are acquainted with all my ways.
3 Indeed, there is not a word on my lips, *
but you, O Lord, know it altogether.
4 You press upon me behind and before *
and lay your hand upon me.
5 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; *
it is so high that I cannot attain to it.
6 Where can I go then from your Spirit? *
where can I flee from your presence?
7 If I climb up to heaven, you are there; *
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
8 If I take the wings of the morning *
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
9 Even there your hand will lead me *
and your right hand hold me fast.
10 If I say, "Surely the darkness will cover me, *
and the light around me turn to night,"
11 Darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day; *
darkness and light to you are both alike.
22 Search me out, O God, and know my heart; *
try me and know my restless thoughts.
23 Look well whether there be any wickedness in me *
and lead me in the way that is everlasting.

“Where is my Faith—even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness—My
God—how painful is this unknown pain—I have no Faith—I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart -- & make me suffer untold agony.”

I was just staring at the woods ... [when] something happened. It's like a layer peeled off the world, the layer that contains all the meanings, the words, the language, the associations we have. Yeah, I was looking at trees, but I no longer could say I knew exactly what a tree was, with all the knowledge and experience that goes into our notion of a tree.
I didn't find it scary ... I guess it is for some people, because I have since, many years since, read about people who suffer from something called dissociation disorder and have this happen to them occasionally, and they seem to hate it. I just thought, well, this is pretty interesting. ...
What if there is a world underneath what we perceive? We're usually in a world of shared "reality." You and I agree on what we see if we're together, we have similar explanations for it, and so on. To leave that behind and just see things without any of those human attributions, well, that's very, very strange, but I wanted to know more. ... I couldn't tell anybody. I had enough sense to think that this would be seen as crazy.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Clothes We Wear

The Clothes We Wear
Rob Gieselmann, July 16, 2017

Charles Eastman was a Native American doctor and writer at the turn of the last century. In his book, The Soul of an Indian, he describes the spirituality of Dakota pregnancy and childbirth. It was believed that the mother transmitted her attitude and secret meditations to the baby during gestation – She would thus take care with her meditations, and isolate herself in nature for prayer.

When the time came, she would deliver the child alone, and listen for nature to speak these words: It is love! The fulfilling of life! Then finally, after birth, she would return to camp holding her mysterious and holy bundle tightly at her breast – for though fully delivered, the baby was separated from his mother by only the thinnest of threads …

The two – mother and baby – remained very much a part of each other. Which all makes me wonder about Rebecca, and her failure, if you will, as a parent. She felt connected to only one of her sons, Jacob. She favored him in an unhealthy way, over against her other son, Esau. Such favoritism actually hurts the favored child, casting self-doubt across his soul.

Rebecca’s projection of who Jacob ought to be was manipulative and hurtful to him. Jacob grabbed at others’ heels, not just at birth, and not just Esau’s – but throughout his life. Striving, constantly striving, yes, Jacob cheated Esau out of both birthright and blessing – and he tricked his father-in-law for gain. Jacob even wrestled with God, pinned God down, and demanded of God a blessing. And don’t you know, God wanted to bless him anyway – minus the manipulation. But Jacob became a bitter combination of unhappy and wily. So much so that at the end of his life, he reflected, few and hard have been the years of my life.

Esau seems far more at ease with himself. Earthy Esau wanted nothing more than to spend time outdoors. He was a classic underachiever who let his brother best him. Yet somehow, his life seems far more authentic than Jacob’s. None of this is to say Esau was perfect. I mean -- at one point, Esau wanted to kill Jacob for Jacob’s shenanigans, but Esau was also the first to forgive, welcoming his brother home with hugs and tears. You have to wonder, why did God choose Jacob to run the line of Abraham’s promise?

**Do you remember Johnny Appleseed? He really existed and he really did plant apple seeds and saplings across the American frontier. Michael Pollan writes about Johnny Appleseed in his book, Botany of Desire, inviting the question, who used whom? Think about it – did Johnny Appleseed use the apple to help feed the frontier? Or did the apple use Johnny Appleseed to extend its habitat across the continent? Johnny Appleseed and the apple became inter-dependent.

Now apply that concept – of mutual interdependence - to Parable of the Sower. Who is using whom? The sower using the seed? The seed the soil? Obviously, the parable speaks to the condition of the human heart - but what if the soil conditions describe not different hearts, but one     heart? Your heart, my heart, equal parts good soil, rocky and trodden soil. But the parable also speaks about God. God who is sloppy-generous with seeds of grace, guaranteeing that grace will be sure to grow - somewhere. But – and here is the question – does the soil need the seed, or does the seed need the soil? For what is grace if it cannot find purchase in the human heart? And what is the human heart without grace?

*I recently overheard someone observe observe that I don’t dress professionally. I confess, I don’t. I like to wear blue jeans with my collar, when I wear my collar at all. I’m not a good priest in that regard – Oh, the scandal of it all. Now –this scandal about my clothing has got me thinking about clothes – Why do we dress the way we do? Why do you wear madras shorts, or a sear sucker suit?

I can think of two reasons: One might be: The clothes we wear is the projection of others –  such as – if I were to wear my collar because that is what you expect of me. Similar projections might be – dress for success – or wear what is conventional – like the sear-sucker suit in the South, which you don’t find often elsewhere. Another reason people pick the clothes they do – is that they want to express themselves – sometimes to make a statement – and sometimes more naturally, as a reflection of their souls. These people are dressing to become more authentic.

I wonder -- if more people dressed as their souls dictate, what might we see? The call of faith – and the parable of the sower – and the lessons of Esau and Jacob – are calls to live authentic lives, from the inside out. To dress for interior success, not external success. Esau lived from the inside out. His arms were hairy because his soul was musky. He was who he was, not who others expected him to be. Jacob, on the other hand, seems to have lived the projections of his mother. Her dream proved to be too much, so he ran away.

The question of the parable is not which type of soil does your heart happen to be– like I said, all our hearts are the sum of all the soils – rather, the question of the parable is this: why do you wait so long in order for the grace of God to find purchase in the fertile soil of your heart? You can live an authentic life. Now. By the grace of God. Be true, as in – To thine own self be true.

And for the mothers who still feels her child at her heart – and the fathers, too, your job is not to make your child a reflection of yourself – but to give him or her the grace to become authentic.

The question for all of us is the same, and that is this: What clothes will you wear?

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Not About Me

The Reverend Christopher Hogin
It’s Not About Me
Genesis 22:1-19
The Episcopal Church of The Ascension
July 2, 2017

In 1953, novelist Kurt Vonnegut wrote a short story called, All The King’s Horses. It’s about a colonel in the United States army assigned to a post in India. He and his family fly over Southeast Asia on a transport plane, but the plane crashes in territory held by a Communist faction. They are captured by a sadistic Communist guerilla chief, marched into the jungle and imprisoned. The guerilla chief summons the colonel and tells him that if he can outwit him in a game of chess, he, his family, and the soldiers can leave. If he loses all will be executed.
            Before they begin the guerilla chief says, “I forgot to mention, there’s a twist.” The colonel is marched into the courtyard. Before him is a life-sized chess board. The soldiers are pawns, the officers as rooks and bishops. To his horror his wife is positioned as queen and his two sons as the knights. The only spot remaining is the King, which is reserved for the colonel. On the opposite end are wooden chess pieces. The rules of the game are simple. The colonel and guerilla chief call the moves. When attacked, the guerilla chief’s wooden pieces are discarded. The colonel’s pieces, however, are removed from the board, taken to a back room, and executed.
Pleased, the guerilla chief sits comfortably next to his girlfriend on a bamboo throne. The girlfriend sits there with a vacant, expressionless look on her face. The game begins. 
The colonel’s battle hardened instincts kick into gear. His objective is simple: play straight-forward defense chess, trade no pieces, and keep all on the board alive. The guerilla chief has the opposite objective. He makes wild moves for the purpose of eliminating American soldiers on the board. One by one, a pawned soldier is removed and taken to a side room. A quick pop is heard. Silence descends.
            In these reckless moves the guerilla chief fails to notice a weakness. The colonel sees his chance to checkmate the guerilla chief in two moves, thus ending the game. He would win, and presumably have their freedom. Then the horrible realization emerges though that in order to win he must sacrifice his knight—a position held by his ten-year old son.
            The colonel’s world comes crashing down. Saving the whole requires a sacrifice of one, the most painful sacrifice of all—his son! His wife gives a horrified look. The remaining soldiers on the board are befuddled. In a moment of detached clarity, the colonel steps outside of his emotions. He whispers to himself, “if x is dead the rest shall live.” The guerilla chief’s eyes glisten for he realizes the game is now exciting.
The colonel shouts to his son on the chess board, “Son, move forward one square, and two to your left.” The colonel’s wife gasps. The guerilla chief, giddy with excitement, says “Do you realize what you’ve done!” Just as the guerilla chief gives the order to execute the boy, his girlfriend, accompanying him in a side bamboo throne, jumps, to her feet and kills guerilla chief and herself. She becomes the sacrifice, not the boy. The game ends. All are saved.  
This short story is not too far off from our reading in Genesis, with God testing Abraham. I don’t pretend to understand what’s going on in here. In fact, when I read this passage earlier in the week in a coffee shop, I literally cried out loud, “Oh sugar I don’t want to preach this!!” (I didn’t say, “sugar”.” I used a word quite the opposite sugar. People looked at me, this priest wearing his collar. I told them I was from Sacred Heart Cathedral.)  
I’m a father. I have a son that I love my son more than life itself. I’m not sure I could make the agonizing decision Abraham did, or the one colonel makes in Kurt Vonnegut’s story.
What I did notice this week is that God reminds us of something profoundly important in Scripture. Last week in our Gospel, Jesus spoke about family divisions: mother against daughter and son against father. We also read about Abraham casting his son Ishmael and his mother into the desert. This week we again read about family division and awful choices.
There’s a theme here. The theme is that it’s not about us. There are issues greater than our own needs in this world. How many of you have read Rick Warren’s famous book, The Purpose Driven Life? The opening lines are, “It’s not about you.” I like that. It’s a truth that’s hard for us to accept, but it’s true. It’s not about us.
            We are reminded by God, and we are reminded by Jesus, not to cling too tightly to this world. We are reminded not to make an idol of anything in this world, and that includes family.  Does that mean that God is egocentric, or somehow selfish? I don’t think so. As one of the prayers in the BCP states, “Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our being.”  
You see, we come from God, we are God’s own, and to God we will return. We own nothing in this world. Abraham made a choice as did the colonel. Both choices communicated the same message. A message that says, “It’s not about me. There are issues greater than me.”
 All of this—everything is temporary: our material possessions, our bodies, our minds, and yes, even our relationships—all are temporary. We really own nothing, and no matter how painful this world may be, and no matter how many senseless acts we endure, in the end, God redeems it all. God redeems us. God did so with a sacrifice of his Son.  In the end, all will be made clear. We will all one day understand. All will be well, but remember, it’s not about us. Amen.