Thursday, March 7, 2019

More than the Worst...

Local news programs now have a graphic for it with dramatic music at the intro: Crisis in the Commonwealth.  It covers stories of two officials who worn blackface several decades ago and a third accused of inappropriate behavior.  No matter your position on these allegations and the seriousness with which they should be taken, each has changed the way we look at the person accused.  Now, when our current governor passes away, the headline of his obituary most likely will reference something he did at a Friday night party while he was in med school. 

A week or two after these stories broke, USAToday published an article chronicling what it had learned by examining more the 800 yearbooks from across the country published during the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s.  They discovered dozens and dozens of photos we deem today to be racially offensive.  They ranged from partiers wearing blackface to an entire fraternity staging a mock lynching.  Thankfully such events are not tolerated today, but they do speak of the environment in which we have been shaped, from which God continually beckons us toward the Kingdom.

While we here tonight may not share the same perspective on these events, there is one thing about them linking us together.  They give each of us cause for concern – what if that thing I did back in the day comes into the light of day in today’s world?  I sleep easy knowing there is nothing hidden in my past that could land me in jail.  Nor is there anything in my past that might cause my holy orders to be suspended.  But if made public there are a few things that would change the way you look at me: “I can’t believe when our priest was x years old, he _______.” 

I suspect there is not a person alive who doesn’t have a skeleton or two in the closet.  Some are things we did, but outgrew.  Others are mistakes we made and have learned how to live with.  Some are behaviors, attitudes, and actions acceptable (or tolerated) back in the day, but today are completely unacceptable.  Others might be things never permissible or even thinkable.  And for some, the mistakes reside not only in the past, they preside in the present and have the potential to do significant damage to us and to those we love if exposed.

I remember long ago having a conversation about the difference between shame and guilt with the priest who welcomed me into the Episcopal Church.  Guilt, he observed, is something a person feels regardless of whether or not anyone else knows what you have done.  A child who regrets stealing from a candy store even though no one knows about it may experience guilt and confess to a parent.  Or, the child may be perfectly at peace with his actions until a parent walks into his room as he stuffs his face surrounded by empty wrappers.  In this scenario, the child feels ashamed only when his actions come to light.  Guilt has something to do with how you feel about your actions.  Shame has something to do with regretting how you appear to others. 

Perhaps you live in fear… fear of being found out.  Fear because there is a time bomb ticking in your past and one of these days it is going to explode.   Or maybe you are riddled with self-recrimination... how could I have been so stupid?  Maybe you believe there is no way you can wipe the slate clean, no way you can remove the stain and pain of your own actions and behaviors. 

We gather on Ash Wednesday to remember our mortality… to remember we are but dust.  And there is plenty in the liturgy to remind us just how dirty our dust is.  The truth is we are the product of a sinful world and we are sinful people and we do more damage than even we realize.  This moment invites us to make peace with these truths.  It invites us to accept our human frailty: to acknowledge the log in our eyes, the wart on our face, and the skeleton in our closet. 

We respond to this invitation not groveling like the Prodigal Son in an attempt to earn our forgiveness and not with trepidation, fearing the consequences of being exposed, but by knowing we are enveloped in a relationship of love.  No matter how dirty we are, God embraces us with loving arms. 

Someone once said to me, “Keith, you are not defined by the worst things you have ever done.”  At the time I was dealing with the consequences of something hurtful I had done, so this comment was tremendously helpful and healing.  It didn’t mean I could run away from my actions and the impact they had on others.  Mistakes are mistakes.  Wrong is wrong.  Sin is sin.  But it did mean I did not deserve to be thrown onto a garbage heap and banished for the rest of my life.  And as damaging as my actions had been, the most significant harm was internal.  I really struggled to live with myself and love myself.  The thought of what I had done was like an anchor dragging me under.  Accepting I am not defined by my worst moments has been like a life-line to which I fiercely cling.

The season of Lent has real value in that it calls us to examine our lives and to repent.  However, we can do real damage to ourselves if we engage this process apart from the truth we are loved for who are, as we are or if we believe our worst moments speak most clearly of our lack of value and worth.  Only in the light of these truths are we able to stand before God bearing open the darkness in our hearts and in our past.  In the light of these truths, we are able to live into our best instincts, to serve as God has called us to serve, and to hope all we do that is good and gracious will be a blessing to this world.

I think about our governor – a person I do not know firsthand.  There is absolutely nothing he can do to erase a picture on his yearbook page.  Still, my assumption is he has grown in his ability to respect the dignity of every human being.  Like all of us, he is guilty of being mortal; of trying to do his best and at times falling short.  I will think of him throughout this season of Lent, not as a person who has fallen short, but as a fallen short person who has much to offer – way too much to be defined solely by something from his distant past.  I will think of him as being not that much different from me, and not that much different from anyone else here this evening.  And I will think of how God sees us as something much better than the worst we have ever done and how God calls each of us to something even better.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Should the Adaptation End Here?

Hollywood loves to take a good book and turn it into a movie.  However, many books don’t translate well to movies, hence, in opening credits you may see something like “Screenplay by Jill Jones, adopted from Al Smith’s book A Ton of Troubles”.  While most adaptations attempt to remain faithful to the original book, some do not.  Characters may be added, subtracted, or even combined.  Entire storylines may be dropped.  And, most grievous of all, the ending may be changed.  More than one moviegoer has walked out of a theatre muttering, “How could they do that!  The book was so much better than the movie!”

If I was tasked with taking the written accounts of Jesus’ life and turning them into a screenplay, my movie might just end with today’s gospel reading.  It is such a climactic moment.  It is a stunning highpoint in the story.  In a sense, what more needs to be said?  Jesus’ true divine nature eclipses his human flesh as he stands head and shoulders above Moses (the giver of the Law) and Elijah (the founder of the prophetic movement).  Their presence with Jesus on the mountain signals the fulfillment of every expectation of the ancient Scriptures.  It is a cue the orchestra, roll the credits, close the curtains, and turn up the house lights kind of moment.  What more do we need to know?  What further epiphany needs to happen? 

This year’s Epiphany season has lasted nine Sundays and over its course we have come to see Jesus as one foretold in days gone by, attested to by God’s voice at baptism, revealed through miracles and healings, and amplified through his teachings.  Today’s Transfiguration is the icing on the cake.  It is the ultimate crescendo.  It is the final piece to the puzzle.  The story, as adapted by Keith Emerson, ends right here.

I’d like to be able to take credit for my version, but the truth is another person came up with it before me.  Peter!  He is there on the mountain when all of this happens and he (like me) is impressed.  Realizing he is privileged to be present at the pinnacle, he makes a very practical suggestion: “Let’s erect a couple of shrines, capture this moment, and stay in it forever.”  What better place in the story of Jesus to insert “and they all lived happily ever after”! 

Because of this story, personal, profound spiritual moments are often referred to as ‘mountaintop experiences.’  They are high points in a person’s life and they stay with us forever.  However, they don’t last forever.  Somewhat like molded clay’s experience in a kiln, the connection we experience with God on a mountaintop prepares us for a lifetime of service for what lies next.  We are not meant to remain in the spiritual kiln.  The purpose mountaintop moments is to prepare us for what comes after.

What happens to Jesus and Peter immediately after the mountaintop is telling.  They return to the crowds and become immersed again in the world’s deep needs as they encounter a young boy tormented by epileptic seizures.  Peter’s story in no way reaches the finish line as he witnesses Jesus’ changed appearance.  It is just one moment that shapes him for service over the next thirty-some years of his life.

Are you familiar with the story of Julian of Norwich?  The Black Death swept through her region in 1373 and at age 31 she became seriously ill.  As a curate administered last rites for her, Julian began to receive a series of visions – fifteen in the span of several hours and one more the next day.  She recovered a week later and in time wrote about her visions in a text known as Revelations of Divine Love.  It is the oldest existing English book written by a woman.  Famous for its phrase “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”, her work has inspired poets such as T.S. Elliot and prime ministers, such as Winston Churchill.  Julian went on to live out her life as an anchoress in the Norwich church, where she prayed for her community, assisted the clergy, and received numerous visitors seeking her counsel.  Julian’s renown spread throughout England and beyond. 

What interests me about Julian’s life is that her deepest, most significant religious experiences (her visions or ‘showings’) last little more than twenty-four hours.  In fact, her mountaintop moment came during a time of perilous illness.  And while she surely had more close experiences with God over the course of her life, nothing came even close to what she experienced in 1373.  The mountaintop was not the end of her story, rather it launched her into a lifetime of prayer and service.

The same is true for Jesus.  As he converses with Moses and Elijah they discuss what must take place in Jerusalem.  Jesus’ most profound ministry occurs after he sets out for the Holy City and it continues all the way to the Cross.  If I would have told it, his story would have ended on the mountain well before the low point of Calvary.  But my adaption would have missed the point.  This great mystical moment is not intended to shelter him from life’s challenges.  Rather, it serves to steel him for all that is to come.

As it was for Jesus, so it is for us.  Our moments of profound religious clarity are few and far between, but they are enough to fuel a lifetime of witness to what lies just beyond.  These moments fill our hearts when we encounter the world’s deep need.  They provide sustaining hope in the face of every discouragement.  They stay with us as we walk through the dark valley.  And they promise that when our mortal bodies lie in death the end of our story has not been written.  Jesus was able to walk down that mountain and walk into all God called him to do because he knew in the end he would rise in glory. 

My adaption might be called “The Easy Road” while the Gospel story is called “The Way of the Cross.”  In the end, The Way of the Cross is the way of life, so there is no way my adaptation should end on today’s mountaintop.