Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Real

We finally got around to watching Lars and the Real Girl. This is one of those movies about which one probably shouldn't hazard a synopsis. But it's about a guy named Lars and the life sized mail order doll named Bianca who becomes his girlfriend.

Lars, I probably don't need to tell you, is delusional. But the movie is a cinematic wondering about whether a delusion might be a community matter more than one person's pathology. Lars's community decides to accept his delusion, holding out the possibility that Bianca is a symptom of something collective, something amiss, awry, or at least something at work in the life of a family, a church, a town.

But I think the movie is also about how we're made real. It's something of a Velveteen Rabbit without the miracles. In The Velveteen Rabbit, you may remember, toys are made real by the love of a child. And 'real' means that they live and breathe and hop off into the forest under their own volition. But as Lars's community pretends that Bianca is real (eventually they elect her to the school board) we sense that none of us may begin real. Perhaps we're made real by others.

Descartes said, "I think, therefore I am." And we (in the West, at least) haven't looked back. We've taken his statement as a self evident truth that reality is an individual matter.

But theologian John Zizoulas once wrote that "one person is no person". In fact, in Being as Communion, Zizoulas lays out the mysterious Christian doctrine of the Trinity as an acknowledgment that God is one, but God is not an individual. There is community within God's very self.

This is heavy stuff. But it's heavy stuff that matters, I think. It mattered to the little Minnesota town where Lars lived. In making Bianca real, everyone was made a little more real.

After Bianca's burial Lars asks Margo to go for a walk. She's been in love with Lars all along. But even though its Lars who no longer feels human touch as pain, even though it's Lars who no longer lives alone in the garage, even though it's Lars who let's go of his mail order girl, it's not just Lars who gets real. Lars is as involved in making people real as he is in becoming real.

What if being really is communion, not just for God, but for us? What would change in our families and churches and towns if we believed that we're only and always made real in communion?

Believing such a thing would mean that the real "real girl" in a movie might well be harder to spot (is it Bianca or Margo?). But believing such a thing might radically change the way we conceive our politics, our families, and ultimately our selves.

What if my only truly inalienable, self evident right is to be in communion? What if?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

An Easter Sermon

The folks in our house are not fast food fans. Maybe it was the viewing of Supersize Me that we inflicted on our kids in their formative years that did it. But a couple of weeks ago we were trying to get out of town for a camping trip, and we found coupons for a free Jamocha shake with the purchase of any sandwich. So, adventurous souls that we are, we risked a stop at the Arby’s drive through window.

Maybe it’s that relative lack of recent experience with this food that made the encounter so surprising and unsettling for me. But along with the first unappetizing bite of my Market Fresh turkey sandwich came this curious hypothesis: I think that the people who name fast food sandwiches are the same people who name housing subdivisions.

Here’s what I mean. It was obvious that nothing in my Market Fresh sandwich was either purchased at any kind of market or fresh by any reasonable standard. Even the pepper seemed to leave a sort of antiseptic aftertaste. No, the sandwich’s name seemed to have nothing to do with the sandwich itself. It was named to appeal to people who like words like “market” and “fresh”. People who think these words sound nice. People who like these words might just buy a sandwich called “market fresh”. They do, and I did.

Wouldn’t you agree that this must be the work of the subdivision namers? You might live in a pleasant place called something like Timber Cove, even though the trees were all bulldozed and replaced with a few sad little saplings when the first road was cut. And the fact that your neighborhood is named something “Cove” or “Valley” or “Ridge” may or may not have anything at all to do with actual geographic features of the land.

This is the brave new postmodern world we were warned about. A world in which our language is emptied of real meaning. A world in which words might mean anything and are chosen more to make us feel some way rather than to point us toward something real, something sturdy, something true.

The stakes aren’t so high when we’re talking about sandwiches and subdivisions. But what if we’re talking about words like “Christian”. What if we’re talking about a word like “Jesus”? What are we to do if we wake up one day and the reality we thought our religious language pointed us toward is gone?

This sounds like a modern dilemma. But it’s at least as old as Easter. Because by Sunday morning, for Mary Magdalene even the name Jesus must have felt kind of hollow; it must have sounded a little foreign perhaps. All the hopes and expectations it had once been filled with were gone, emptied out completely on Good Friday. Maybe the word itself went suddenly strange. As though she’d read it for the first time that morning on a billboard, or a license plate, or the belt buckle of an odd stranger in the park.

You know the feeling, don’t you? Especially after the death of someone we love, the most familiar sights and sounds go a little strange. Everything hangs in a sort of obscuring fog that makes us wonder how we ever felt safe and at home in this world and makes us wonder how we ever thought names and words would mean something sure forever.

And countless people across time have had a similar experience with regard to their faith. Mary’s not the only one for whom the Jesus we thought we knew dies or disappears or just becomes strange. We thought Jesus answered all our prayers just so, watched out for our loved ones, pricked our consciences in reliable ways. Then one day that Jesus is gone. The people on television or on the bestseller lists or in the pulpit keep using his name, but the person they describe has less and less to do with any God we’ve actually encountered or any savior we’ve honestly longed for in a long, long time.

Once upon a time we believed. Once upon a time Christianity held meaning, and Jesus was the name of someone familiar and comprehensible. Once upon a time…

Sometimes in such moments of doubt we might push back a little. We might appropriate the methods of the sandwich and subdivision namers for a higher purpose. We might try to fill the vacant old religious words with the meaning we want them to hold and try to imagine a Jesus we might actually hope for into being. But the approach doesn’t work for long, because we sense that imagining a Jesus we want into existence, no matter how appealing he might be, is just another fraud, a short postponement of more disillusion.

Mary, at least, grieved honestly. Early on the first Easter morning she had begun imagining her way toward a future without Jesus, and she didn’t hope for much. She saw the empty tomb, but even with two angels in white framing the emptiness where the body had been, Mary thought it must have been stolen, and she begged only for the chance to treat that precious corpse with the dignity it deserved. But it was gone. And what other explanation, what other future could there be? It’s not the outcome she had hoped for, but how else could she make sense of it all?

All Mary knew to do that morning was visit the tomb. But Mary also lingered there for a while. And she lingered there long enough to hear her name. She didn’t solve the riddle, read the signs, comprehend the prophecy. The meaning of Jesus has been so completely lost that when Mary meets the risen Christ in the garden, she doesn’t know him. Which is one way the gospel writer tells us that Mary didn’t get the Jesus she was looking for. But when Mary hears her name, her eyes are opened.

For some of us, the Christian faith is a lot like lingering at a tomb. We’re not quite sure what else to do, so maybe we keep on using the old Christian words long after they’ve ceased to hold much meaning. Maybe we even keep coming to church. But for some of us, it’s only after we’ve stopped expecting to encounter the old Jesus at all that the risen Christ appears and calls to us. It’s only when we’ve let go of everything we think we’re supposed to do or think or believe to be properly religious that we encounter the living God who actually knows us and calls us by name. For us, as for Mary, faith is a gift.

The problem, of course, is that Mary wasn’t in control, which suggests that we may not be in control of this encounter either. Mary didn’t summon Jesus or figure out how to entice him. He just showed up. But after his questions, Jesus does offer Mary one simple instruction. He demands just one action. Almost as soon as Jesus speaks Mary’s name, he says, “Do not hold on to me.” The only thing he tells her to do is “Don’t cling.”

Could it be that for us as for Mary, the impulse to cling to the Jesus we think we know—no matter how bereft of meaning that Jesus has become—could it be that this impulse to cling is what keeps us from seeing the risen Christ who is actually among us? Who may actually be calling to us by name? Clinging to Christianity as we assume it must be—whether we cling in order to dismiss it or to fill it with our own made up meaning—clinging to Christianity as we assume it must be, might be what keeps us from a living faith that can actually fill our empty lives and direct them toward a future with God.

“Do not hold on to me,” said Jesus. And we should remember that he was telling Mary not to cling even to the risen Christ. Even after the resurrection, clinging too desperately to the Christ of that day might keep Mary from following the Christ who was calling her into the next. Even on Easter morning, he said, “Mary, don’t hold on.”

Might Jesus’ instructions be relevant to us and to our Christian tradition today? The great gift of our Anglican heritage is surely our generous but grounded understanding of worship and the sacraments. Because if we approach these holy mysteries without clinging to our notions and assumptions about what God must surely mean by them or what we think God will surely do to us through them, when we approach these holy mysteries open to a new experience of the loving God who creates and redeems and sustains us, we open ourselves to transformation.

And maybe when we learn to live this way as a church, we will stop clinging to the hollow shell of the Jesus we think we know or the fleeting Jesus we have wished into being for a time—whether he was liberal or conservative or orthodox or radical—maybe we will stop clinging, and linger honestly at the tomb and see just who it is that calls our name today.

For maybe it’s precisely when the language of faith goes a little strange, when the sights and sounds are a little less familiar, when the meaning of Jesus is no longer so settled and obvious, that resurrection is close at hand. Amen.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Way of the Cross

Here's a story told by Wendell Berry in an essay called, "The Burden of the Gospels":
"In 1569 in Holland, a Mennonite named Dirk Willems, under capital sentence as a heretic, was fleeing from arrest, pursued by a ‘thief-catcher.’ As they ran across a frozen body of water, the thief-catcher broke through the ice. Without help, he would have drowned.

What did Dirk Willems do then? Was the thief-catcher an enemy merely to be hated, or was he a neighbor to be loved as one loves oneself. Was he an enemy whom one must love in order to be a child of God? Was he ‘one of the least of these my brethren’? What Dirk Willems did was turn back, put out his hands to his pursuer and save his life. The thief-catcher, who then of course wanted to let his rescuer go, was forced to arrest him. Dirk Willems was brought to trial, sentenced, and burned to death by a ‘lingering fire.’

I, and I suppose you, would like to be a child of God even at the cost of so much pain. But would we, in similar circumstances, turn back to offer the charity of Christ to an enemy?"
What's stunning about Holy Week isn't just that it happened, but that it happens again and again in this world. And the question is, just as it is for the pacifist witness of Dirk Willems, "does it work?"

From our perspective, Willem's charity didn't work out for him. But our definition of a life's working out well is probably closer to Spock's than Jesus's. "Live long and prosper" we get. "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you," ...not so much.

Like Wendell Berry, I can't say that I would respond like Dirk Willems. I can't even manage to forgive the enemy who simply slanders or mistreats my ego in the mildest of ways. And I can easily construct a situation in my mind in which the pacifist witness would look less noble, or at least more complicated. But the truth is that Jesus' silence this week before his accusers is not some literary flourish to this story.

Jesus refused to return evil for evil, violence for violence, even when it meant his crucifixion. He taught us to do the same. Yet radical peaceableness toward enemies was explained away so long ago by most Christians that we rarely let the notion cramp even our emotional state. The righteous hatred and embrace of retributive justice by Christians are taken as matters of fact, by the world and by us Christians ourselves.

All I ask is that we listen honestly to the story that will unfold this Triduum, these three sobering days. And ask the question, "This way of Jesus, this way of the cross, did it work? Does it work?"

The answer probably comes down to whether I will let Jesus' way go to work on me.