Posted by: dacalu | 2 April 2020

The First Survey

On the eighth day, the angel Survael appeared to the man and the woman and asked them for their feedback. There was a great ringing sound, like unto a new text message in the heavens, and the sky was rent in two, and the angel descended upon Eden. “I come bearing a short survey. Be not afraid, for it will take only 15 minutes.” Adam and Eve were perplexed, for they had no experience of the survey, but they loved the Lord. So, Adam said, “Let it be with me according to thy prepared script.”

And Survael said unto them, “Please rate creation and all therein on a scale of one to seven, with seven being the most blessed. I will read the questions one at a time and ask you for a number. Do you understand the instructions as I have explained them to you?” And they replied, “yea, we have understood.” And the form was blank and void.

“On a scale of one to seven, how would you rate the light and the darkness?” Eve replied that the light was very good to see by and Adam said the darkness served for sleep and prayer. The angel frowned and asked them again. “On a scale of one to seven, how would you rate the light and the darkness?” But they stared blankly. So, the angel said, “I need a number” and “is the light good?” Eve said, “yes, the light is good.” But Adam, scratching his head said, “is it very good?” Survael wrote a six and called it good. And there was hemming and hawing, the first question.

“On a scale of one to seven, how would you rate the firmament?” Eve worried about leaking, but Adam said this was good for the plants and probably intentional. They never fully answered, but Survael said, “I shall write a six.” And it was so. And there was hemming and hawing, the second question.

“On a scale of one to seven, how would you rate the land and the seas?” Survael squinted and added that this question had fiddly bits, and perhaps they should take them one at a time. He asked them to rate the seas individually, as well as each of the plants after its own kind: the grass and the herbs and the fruit trees bearing fruit. And all of this was straightforward, except for the bit about the fruit.

Adam and Eve thought that the fruit was very good. They enjoyed the olives, figs, and citrons, but they had not eaten fruit from two trees in the midst of the garden, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. So Adam told the angel to write down a seven, but add “N/A” for “not apples.” Survael said, “there is no space for that on the form.” And Eve said, “there should be.” And there was hemming and hawing, the third question.

“On a scale of one to seven, how would you rate the sun, moon, and stars?” The humans liked them very much, but wished to leave room for improvement, so they gave them a six as well. And there was hemming and hawing, the fourth question.

“On a scale of one to seven, how would you rate the birds of the air and the fish of the sea?” This provoked discussion. They agreed that the birds were very noble, but found the fish hard to fathom.

“What is Leviathan for, exactly?” asked Adam.

Eve wanted to know more about the great whales. “They’re very nice, but not exactly fish-like, if you know what I mean.”

“I just ask the questions. I didn’t write them,” Survael replied defensively. Adam suggested he might be happier with more mackerel. Eve glared at him and wondered aloud whether cod came in a larger size. Survael sighed loudly. “There are always more fish in the sea.” This caused them both to glare, so the angel moved on. “Birds good, fish good.” And there was hemming and hawing (as well as an awkward cough), a fifth question.

“On a scale of one to seven, how would you rate the inhabitants of the earth: beasts and cattle and creeping things?” They were good as well. Adam offered to name all of them individually, but Survael said that would not be necessary.

“And yourselves? On a scale of one to seven, how would you rate humanity?” And the humans said that they were very good, a seven out of seven, at least. But Eve kept all these questions and pondered them in heart. She couldn’t help but wonder about the apples…

And God cursed the survey above all forms of data collection, so that the social scientist must live by sweat and tears. From that day forth, all surveys, no matter how well intentioned, no matter how carefully written, no matter how precisely delivered, cause anxiety and never, ever take only 15 minutes.

Posted by: dacalu | 30 March 2020

Dedicated Space

Nonverbal Community Part II

In my last post, I talked about the challenges of maintaining community in a time of social distancing. Online meetings provide some connection, but meet different needs and create different stresses than face-to-face gatherings. Teleconferences usually focus on verbal communication. I’d like to walk through a few ways to keep up nonverbal community while still respecting social distance – and still encouraging people to meet online. Summary and recommendations appear at the end.

Dedicated Space

Part of the joy I get from in-person gatherings comes from entering a dedicated space. Meetings involve space, a location set aside to be together with others. It may be short-term, like a ballroom reserved for a wedding, or long-term like a cathedral. It may be very generic, like a restaurant or rec center, or specific, like an airport or movie theater. All of these spaces are dedicated to some common purpose. They remind us that we are not alone in what we are doing. They set the tone for our activities and shape us psychologically – often more than we know.

Dedicated spaces remind us that we are not alone. Others have committed to this location. They have given time, money, and effort to shaping it. The effects can be especially strong when a space has been formed by a large group or over a long time. Three hundred thirty million US citizens look to the Capital Building in Washington, D.C., as the center of government. Westminster Abbey has hosted daily prayer for over a thousand years, 760 in the current building.

More goes into such spaces than opulence or dramatic architecture. Some spaces can be very simple. One of the most celebrated spots in Scotland is the battlefield at Culloden. The forces of George II defeated Bonnie Prince Charlie there in 1745, ending his attempt to seize the British throne. The field has other associations as well. Clava Cairns, a four thousand year old burial site, lies just off the main field, suggesting people have gathered there for millennia. The mysticism of Culloden is known to many through the ring of standing stones central to the plot of the Outlander series. It represents Scottish community and identity.

Perhaps places have inherent power. Perhaps we leave a bit of energy behind when we gather to pray, play, work, or just be in a space. Or perhaps the only power comes from our knowledge that others have gone before. Location matters to us. Continuity and community have a psychological impact through these places. They form an important aspect of community life.

Dedicated space matters to me, and I find such spaces wherever I go, places that connect me to others. I can rest in almost any church. Sacred buildings know what they are doing, even when the congregants do not. Mindfulness and worship have been, literally, built into them. Filled with pray-ers or still at midnight, a Christian sanctuary makes me feel grounded. When I travel, I also visit libraries, like the Manchester Public Library. Both the Victorian reading room, with its silent grandeur, and the front entrance, with quotidian bustle, reflect a sense of civic pride and commitment to the common good.

As an introvert, I find that even a movie theater can help me center myself. I enjoy going alone, where I can sit with a hundred strangers, who share a single focus for 90 minutes, without ever speaking to on another.

Dedicated space provides an important aspect of nonverbal community. We change when we enter familiar spaces (for good and ill). We shape ourselves to the mental and emotional environment of work, home, and public space. For the last four years, I have used the local coffee shop as a social space to be focused on work, away from distractions, yet not alone.

During social distancing, we cannot go out to our favorite places, but we can dedicate local space to a community or an activity. We can reserve a space in the home for exercise, prayer, or work. We might even set up a corner whose sole purpose is teleconferencing, to separate private and public activities.

You do not need a large house. It may be easier to negotiate dedicated space when you have a spare room or extra space, but they are not necessary. In graduate school, I lived in a small apartment, with two modest rooms, a kitchenette, and a bathroom. I created a six square foot chapel with a cloth hanging and an icon. The space was tiny, but it helped me feel connected to my Christian community. It allowed me set aside time, focus my attention, and travel virtually to a space of prayer.

Distance provides its own benefits. Commuting gives us mental space to shift gears. A moment alone in the car. Time to read on the bus. Vital minutes of music or podcast or simple silence that separate community time from family time, work time, or personal time can make a big difference in our ability to connect.

We may have to give up our old common spaces and the physical distance we are used to, but we can still benefit from respecting time and space. We can commit to dedicated space (and time) as a way of maintaining community.

Summary:

Social distancing robs us the normal “place” aspect of community; we remain in one place.

Suggestions:

  1. Create a dedicated community space in your home: a space for public interaction generally, or a special space for each group you want to hold on to.
  2. Talk with others in your community so that your community space can be shaped by the community. Consider sharing a common picture, color, or object to knit you together across the distance. You might all keep the same picture, or light a candle, or go outside to look up at the moon at the same time of night.
  3. Give yourself “travel” time to adjust before and after virtual meetings. Use dedicated time and space to provide the mental, emotional, and physiological space usually created by physical travel.
Posted by: dacalu | 27 March 2020

Nonverbal Community

I have a confession to make; I find Zoom meetings very stressful. I’m part of numerous communities, all of which have switched to teleconferences for the sake of social distancing: several church groups as well as martial arts and academia. I’m deeply grateful for the support and the technology. I can’t imagine what quarantine was like before the age of social media. And, yet I find it difficult to find enthusiasm or even a strong will to attend.

At first, I thought this was simply discomfort with changing my routine, but I’ve been using Zoom for a while and it works very well. (I’m also happy with Skype and Google tools.) I’m comfortable with the technology. Next, I thought it might be grief over losing out on part of my friendships. Sure, I could talk to people, but I wanted more. Both explanations seemed true in part, but neither quite captured my distress.

I think it has something to do with introversion. I love talking with people, but talking tires me out. Being with people recharges me. It sounds strange, I know, but when I am truly out of sorts, nothing cheers me more not talking with people I know. This is, I suspect, common among introverts: a desire to be with other people, especially when you know them well enough to be silent.

Teleconferences take all the difficult parts of meeting and put them up front. I’m okay with crowds (mostly) because I have learned to read the mood of the room. People share emotions. But on Zoom, each person has their own box. I feel a need to constantly move between images, not to mention looking at the text as people chat on the side. Add to that regular checks to see that I’m positioned right for my own camera, that my mic is on (or off), and the other distractions of a computer screen. It can be overwhelming.

At the same time, I don’t get the non-verbal communication and reinforcement I find comforting. I can’t align my posture and breathing with others. I can’t settle into the rhythm of being together. I’ve never been much for handshakes and hugs, but proximity matters to me. Above all, I can’t relax into that sense of silent belonging. For me, virtual meetings have most of the costs and few of the benefits of physical gatherings.

And so, I have replaced something very important in my life, something that feeds me (physical gathering) with something that drains me (teleconferences). I’m not proud of this. I love community and know how hard my friends work to create virtual meetings. I want to support them, and I want to get better at being a virtual member. And, I know that will be hard for me.

Teleconferencing preserves one aspect of community but, for me, it is not the core. Nor is it simply a narrower version of the same thing. It is an entirely different way of interacting. Social distancing is important right now; I do not want more in-person interactions. Virtual meetings are among the best tools for communicating while we are apart. Still, I will be sad if they become the cornerstone of community life. They change group dynamics in important and, for me, negative ways.

In future posts, I’ll explore possibilities for maintaining the non-verbal aspects of community and reflect on how they might tie in with virtual meetings. I’m thinking about physical rituals, dedicated spaces, temporal rhythms, personal participation, and small group interaction. And, I’d like to hear suggestions. But first I wanted to share my reflections and see if others feel the same way I do.

Social distancing will be with us for a long time. The current intensity of “shelter in place” may, if we are lucky, last for only three months, but societal caution is likely to last far longer. The wait for a vaccine and reliable testing could easily reach 18 months. If we talk and plan now, we can be better prepared for life during the worst of the pandemic, and better prepared for the new world after. For good and ill, coronavirus is reshaping our ideas about what it means to live together. I’d like to be intentional about that.

Posted by: dacalu | 11 February 2020

Salt and Light

Yesterday I had the joy to worship with the people of Trinity Episcopal Church in Seattle, WA. We celebrated the fifth Sunday after Epiphany. Here is the sermon I shared.

Prayer of the Day

Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings

Isaiah 58:1-9a (“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice”)

Psalm 112:1-9 (“Hallelujah! Happy are they who fear the Lord”)

1 Corinthians 2:1-12 (“I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” AND “For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within?”)

Matthew 5:13-20 (“You are the salt of the earth.” AND “You are the light of the world.”)

Sermon

“When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (I Corinthians 1-2)

We face a great temptation in the church,

             a temptation that has been with us since the Enlightenment,

            perhaps since the time of Christ.

We are tempted to think of physical and spiritual matters separately,

            to say that what we do with our bodies is not what we do with our souls,

            to say that what we do with our money is not what we do with our values,

            to say that our politics are separate from our beliefs.

But that is not the gospel.

Jesus was physical and political.

            He did not occupy another world; he occupied this one, tangibly.

            He did not ask us to escape these things, but to transform them.

This is, for me, the great and terrible mystery of Christianity.

            We are not replaced, but transformed.

            Water and bread and wine are sanctified.

            And the concrete, tangible, fallible community,

                        becomes the body of Christ.

It is so easy to make this complicated.

            And there is a mystery there, a deep mystery.

            It is worth meditating on the wonder of it,

                        and the surprise.

            But first we must come to the simple truth of it,

                        the literal, visceral, day to day truth of life in Christ.

So, let us begin there.

You are salt.

And you are light.

Both are strangely magical,

            because of what they do.

Salt preserves food by extracting the water,

making it inhospitable to micro-organisms.

Flesh that decays becomes flesh that lasts.

Salt enhances flavor, interacting with other tastes

            in the cells of our mouth,

            making both sweet and sour more intense.

In Matthew’s time, salt was mined from the ground

            and evaporating sea water.

Think about that for a moment:

            a powerful substance revealed by drying out water.

It’s not entirely clear how salt could lose its flavor.

            Matthew may be referring to impurities,

                        occurring naturally or added my merchants

                        to make money.

            Or, he could be thinking more metaphorically.

In any case, if salt lost its savor,

            it would be nothing but white sand.

Salt, I suspect, does not care whether it is salty,

            but we care.

We use salt daily.

Its interactions with other chemicals matter.

Or, consider light:

            little packets of energy flying from the Sun.

Sunlight powers the wheat that turns air and soil into food.

It powers the grapes that turn soil and air into drink.

We rarely look at light,

            but without light, we could never look at anything else.

Light has power.

            It enables. It stimulates. It reveals.

We eat the light, and bathe in light, and use the light, daily.

And so, when Jesus says we are salt and light,

            I think he is telling us about our importance.

We may be valuable in ourselves,

            but I’m not even sure what that means.

Our value comes from our relationships –

            first with God and then with one another.

God makes us powerful, like salt and light.

            God makes us important through our concrete, physical, daily interactions.

There is something magical about that.

            It may be thoroughly scientific,

            but it is also wonderful and surprising and deeply important.

We must look within to see ourselves truly.

This is not a spiritual metaphor.

            Well, it is a spiritual metaphor,

                        but first it is a physical truth.

Consider your body,

            tissue by tissue, cell by cell, atom by atom.

All of it physical, material, tangible.

            All of it scientifically tractable.

Take it apart piece by piece,

            and nothing remains:

            no mass unaccounted for,

            no energy unaccounted for.

In truth we are mostly empty space with very simple energy fields,

            holding protons and neutrons and electrons together.

Taken apart, we are as nothing.

            But put the pieces together and something interesting happens,

                        something miraculous.

The parts interact,

            and we interact,

            and we have power.

What is that?

What are humans that God cares for us?

What are humans that we care for one another?

These are not secrets of Christianity;

they are mysteries of science,

wonders of daily life.

All humans know them.

Many religions,

            indeed, many Christians,

would claim that our faith requires something added,

something separable,

something “spiritual.”

Maybe it does.

But that is not the point,

            and that is not the gospel.

The gospel is this:

            that God’s spirit moves in matter,

            that molecules like salt and waves like light have power,

that the atoms and cells and tissues come together

            and have meaning.

Water from a stone.

Light made manifest.

God made flesh.

Miracles are not spirituality without physicality.

They are not faith without science.

They are important because they occur here,

            in our world, in our daily lives.

Isaiah knew this when he wrote:

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isaiah 58:6-7)

Light is not light when it does not shine.

Bread it not bread when it does not feed.

And we are not truly human unless we love one another,

            unless we shine,

            unless we feed.

And we cannot claim true worship,

            unless we do so with bread and wine shared,

            the symbolic and spiritual and tangible bread and wine of the altar,

            the symbolic and spiritual and tangible food given to the hungry

                        on our streets and in our world.

These are not separate things.

            They are never distinct and apart.

Break up the liturgy into words and actions,

            gold and silver and incense,

            individuals standing and sitting and kneeling,

            books of prayers and ritual acts.

Dissect our worship into its pieces,

            and nothing remains.

It is only mass and space and energy.

Separate it from the community,

            separate it from the poor, the sick, the widow and the orphan,

            separate it from money and politics,

            separate it from the plants and animals and the environment,

            and nothing remains.

It becomes a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. (I Corinthians 13.1)

Or, as Shakespeare would have it:

“It is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (Macbeth V.5)

Christians start with the same atoms, the same cells, the same words.

We value the same space and matter and energy,

            but we put them together in a new way.

We say that God was such a being as us,

            a rock and a wave,

            a tree and a vine,

            flesh and blood.

Is not an accident, but the essence of Christianity

            that matter matters,

            that science matters,

            that relationship matters.

There is a power in the way we are put together.

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (I Corinthians 2:9)

We are never less than physical.

We are never less than political.

We are tangible and real,

            and we work out our faith day by day,

            encounter by encounter.

When we separate faith from daily life

it becomes less spiritual.

If you are anything like me, you are stressed.

            You feel the strain of the economy and you worry about money.

                        You worry that financial demands will separate you from the love of God.

            You feel the strain of a divided nation.

                        You worry that partisan politics will separate you from the love of God.

            You feel the strain of daily life,

                        making a living, taking care of children and parents,

                        cooking and cleaning and caring for the world.

                        You worry that all of this will separate you from the love of God.

But nothing can separate you from the love of God.

“I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

We will disagree about how to spend our money,

            as individuals, as a church, and as a nation.

We will disagree about which policies and doctrines to pursue.

            What is right? What is true? What is compassionate?

But we must never forget that God meets us precisely there,

            where light becomes food,

            where empty space and atoms and energy come together,

            where we cease to be alone

                        and start to be the body of Christ,

                        the messy, material, magical body of Christ,

                        at work in the world.

Posted by: dacalu | 20 January 2020

Light from Light

This morning, I had the pleasure of worshiping with the people of Emmanuel Episcopal Church on Mercer Island. We celebrated the second Sunday after Epiphany and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Here is the sermon I shared.

Prayer for II Epiphany

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings

Isaiah 49:1-7 (“I will give you as a light to the nations”)

Psalm 40:1-12 (“I waited patiently upon the Lord”)

I Corinthians 1:1-9 (“in every way you have been enriched in him”)

John 1:29-42 (“He said to them, ‘Come and see.'”)

Sermon

Today, I want to talk about three words,

            words we say each week in the Nicene Creed:

            “Light from light.”

In full, I might say

            “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

            the only son of God, God from God, light from light, true God from true God,

            begotten, not made.”

What does it mean that Jesus is “light from light”?

Like light, God makes things clearer,

            God shines light on us so that we grow,

            so that we understand ourselves better,

            and so that we understand our neighbors better.

This is one of my tests for right belief and right behavior.

            Does it help me understand the world better?

                        Do I think more clearly and know more?

            Does it help others understand me better?

                        Do I speak more clearly and communicate more?

Light improves transparency and openness.

It is a good standard in science.

Good scientists make theories simple and clear,

                        easy to grasp and easy to test.

            They craft experiments

                        that definitively reveal the truth of their hypotheses,

                        or their falsehood.

It is a good standard in engineering.

            Good engineers make tools simple and clear,

                        easy to use and understand.

            They make code and cars and computers

                        as intuitive for the user as the designer.

It is a good standard in general,

            for thinking and speaking and community.

Shining light on your own thoughts, emotions, and motivations

            leads to self-awareness, clarity, and integrity.

Shining light on your surroundings

            leads to knowledge and wisdom.

It is a standard for faith as well.

CS Lewis put it succinctly:

            “I believe in Christianity

as I believe that the sun has risen:

not only because I see it, but

because by it I see everything else.”

But what do I mean, concretely?

             My belief in God has brought me to a better understanding of myself.

                        Talking with God has taught me about myself,

                        given me tools and courage and compassionate companions

                                    for real self-reflection.

                        I find that I am not perfect,

                                    but can improve.

                        I am both stronger and more flexible than I knew.

            My belief in God has brought me a better understanding of others.

                        It revealed a world of persons and souls,

                                    imperfect as I am imperfect,

                                    improvable as I am improvable,

                                    and each with their own fears and delights,

                                    each with their own identity.

            My belief in God has also brought me a better understanding of the world.

                        By believing in a God who made all things,

                                    and who made all things good,

                                    I learned that all things deserve my attention,

                                                my curiosity, and my love.

I choose to believe in God,

            on those days when God isn’t speaking too loud to ignore…

I choose to believe in God,

            because God brings light.

More than that,

            God is light.

Consider vision

            Photons from the Sun bounce off of objects

                        and travel to my eyes,

                        where they stimulate rods and cones

                        and send signals to my brain.

            This is not a miracle in the classic sense.

                        Real, physical particles pass through space,

                        connecting observers to the world.

            It is still miraculous,

                        wondrous and amazing and worthy of awe

                        that we see clearly and know the world around us.

Like light, God connects me to the world.

            The interactions are just as physical, just as real;

                        a word, a glance, a gesture

            somehow communicate my thoughts, my feelings, my identity.

When I remember that God connects us

            and can connect us

            I pay attention.

            And, the more I pay attention, the more I see:

                        more curiosity, more clarity, more light,

                        and more God.

So far, I could say these words as a Buddhist or Hindu or committed empiricist.

            I have spoken for truth and wisdom.

I am happy to preach that gospel,

            and to share it.

            Christians have no monopoly on the truth.

            But we, with all other truth-seekers, must spread the good news

                        because there are plenty of people out there

                        spreading lies, hiding truth, and worshipping the darkness.

We must not take truth for granted.

We must not take light for granted.

But there is more.

As a Christian, I can say,

            and I do believe,

            that Jesus makes God more visible.

Jesus is light from light and truth from truth.

He is the fundamental order and knowability of the universe,

            the logos of the cosmos.

But, he is also a real, physical person in time and space.

Like the photon,

            his very physicality allows others to communicate,

            with God and with one another.

In a way, he is as un-miraculous as the photon.

            Our God is not a transcendent abstraction,

            but a concrete, historical figure,

            who asks us to do specific things –

                        to love and learn,

                        to eat and drink with one another,

                        to forgive.

We test our faith in these acts.

We ask whether they lead to more light and truth.

We ask whether they improve our life and our relationships.

That is what “light from light” means to me.

And it is my aspiration.

            Just as Jesus is a light from the light of God,

            so I hope to be a light from the light of Christ.

When we participate in the life of Christ,

            concretely, physically, specifically,

            we participate in the light of Christ.

It allows us to judge our creeds and our institutions.

It allows us to judge our actions.

Do we bring clarity?

Do we create connection?

Have we witnessed to the light of Christ?

I do not claim to do this perfectly.

            The thought makes me want to laugh and cry.

            I claim it as a hope, and I strive to do it better.

I do not claim that the Christian Tradition,

            or the Anglican Communion,

            or the Episcopal Church,

            or the Diocese of Olympia

            do this perfectly.

We are, however, committed to improving.

And we must hold ourselves accountable to that standard.

Do we bring light to the world?

Do we hold ourselves to standards of clarity and transparency?

Do we have ways to improve?

Martin Luther King reminds us of what it means to bring things to light:

            the danger and the power and the opportunity.

He said this:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.

Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

The real virtues are not the mirror image of vices.

            Light is not the equal opposite of darkness,

                        but a real, physical, tangible power filling the darkness.

            Knowledge is not the equal opposite of ignorance,

                        but a concrete ability to see and touch the world.

            Love is not the equal opposite of hate, or even of selfishness,

                        but the creation of connection, order, and meaning,

                        where once there were only isolated objects.

This is the Epiphany of Christ,

            sacred and secular,

            wrapped together.

This is the mission of the church:

            To preach Jesus Christ,

God from God

Light from Light

True God from True God.

This is your opportunity and your power.

Posted by: dacalu | 18 January 2020

God’s Metabolism

Last week I had the pleasure and privilege of going on retreat with the Society of Ordained Scientists at the Redemptorist Renewal Center in Tucson, AZ. At our first Eucharist, we reflected on the season (Epiphany), the theme of the retreat (authority), and the readings of the day. Here are the thoughts that I shared.

Collect for the Society of Ordained Scientists

Almighty God, Creator and Redeemer of all that is, source and foundation of time and space, matter and energy, life and consciousness: Grant us in this Society and all who study the mysteries of your creation, grace to be true witnesses to your glory and faithful stewards of your gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Readings

Colossians 1:24-2:7 (“I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”)

John 8:12-19 (“I know where I have come from and where I am going”)

Sermon

How many of you have a beloved mystery,

            a question that troubles and delights you

            because it provokes insights without ever being fully answered?

To be clear, this is not a perverse resistance to an answer.

            I long with all my heart to know.

            I just never seem to get there.

Nor is it just a poorly framed question like

      “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”

Admittedly, that one may have had real value in the High Middle Ages,

      when modal logic and Platonic Realism had more currency

      than materialist physics.

No. A beloved mystery must be a question

            sincerely meant and diligently pursued.

It is a quest.

My quest is this:

            what is life, that I am mindful of it?

I am a biologist, so I’m concretely focused on the life we share

            with animals, plants, and fungi, even bacteria –

            the life of our bodies,

            or, if you like, our metabolism.

I can’t be sure that there is a rigorous,

analytic or empirical answer to the question,

but I can’t avoid using the word, ‘life,’

so it must mean something to me.

Life has value.

And, I have come to suspect that life, metabolic life,

            has serious theological implications as well.

Not some abstract mental or spiritual life,

      but the concrete life of flesh and blood,

      the bodily life Christ took on in Jesus,

      and shared in bread and wine.

It is an ancient mystery,

      asked around the world,

      not just by Christians.

Why must we eat other living things?

Why can’t we, like plants, live off of light?

Why must we kill to eat and live?

It takes on special significance for Christians

            in the Incarnation – God with us,

            in the Eucharist – Christ’s body and blood

            and in Church – membership in the Body of Christ.

These are metaphors, of course, but they are not just metaphors.

            As with anything else in scripture,

                        it bears playing out literally before reaching too far into symbolism.

So, when we speak of the Body rooted in Christ,

            and held together by the Spirit, the very breath of God,

            what did that mean to Paul,

            and what might it mean to us?

I cannot pass over this question as a theologian

      without passing through it as a scientist.

The biological question turns out to be quite difficult to answer.

What is life?

What makes a body a body, and not just a lump of matter?

Every organism persists through time,

            despite a constant turnover of matter,

            cells and tissues, gained and lost,

            formed and reformed.

            It brings whole new meaning to Ecclesia semper reformanda est.

                        The body must ever be reformed.

            The difference between living tissue and dead tissue

is not in its composition,

nor even in its origin,

but in its action and how it relates to other tissues.

            The same is true, I think, of Christian life.

                        I do not live to myself or for myself.

                        I am not a Christian because my parents were Christians,

                                    though my faith could not exist,

                                                at least not in its present form,

                                    had it not been passed to me through them.

                        I am not a Christian because I have been baptized,

                                    though that act planted a seed in me.

                        I am a Christian because of my faith, hope, and love,

                                    because of curiosity and community.

                        I did not make these things;

                                    I was grafted onto them, and into them.

I was, quite literally, incorporated into the Body of Christ.

            As I am fueled by bread and wine,

So I am fuel for the church,

                        I am accepted, transformed, and put to use.

It is an uncomfortable metaphor,

            being so very common, so very material, so very… visceral.

I shy away from the baseness of it.

And yet, the more I look at the question,

            the more I ask about God’s metabolism,

            the more I realize how fundamental this idea is scripture,

                        to faith, and to community.

I am dead to self, but alive in Christ.

I am rooted in Christ, the living water.

I am grafted onto the tree which is Christ.

And the mystery of life in Christ is the same as the mystery of metabolism,

            because I am material and local,

            just as God was material and local

            and local bodily life is essential to who we are,

            but they are not the fullness of who we are.

My physical, temporal self lives,

            being part of something dynamic, persistent, and transformative.

My body lives because it is continually remade.

My church lives because is continually remade,

            continually interacting with the world,

            breathing in and breathing out.

It is not the frozen seed of isolationism, slowly consuming itself.

Nor is it the gluttonous blob of colonialism,

            consuming all it meets while resisting change.

It is alive and real and,

            though we cannot see it,

            constantly changing into something new and wonderful.

And we, all the while, are growing with it.

Posted by: dacalu | 12 January 2020

Everything is Holy

Today, I had the joy of worshiping with the people of St. Michael and All Angel’s Episcopal Church in Tucson, AZ. Here is the sermon I shared.

Prayer for the Baptism of Jesus

Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Readings from Scripture

Isaiah 42:1-9 (“I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”)

Psalm 29 (“Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his Name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.”)

Acts 10:34-43 (Jesus Christ is Lord of all)

Matthew 3:13-17 (John baptizes Jesus in the River Jordan)

Sermon

Shall we get in trouble?

I think I know you well enough

            and Brother Dave well enough.

Let’s give it a try.

You see, one of the challenges of preaching

            is that it involves speaking to many people at the same time.

No matter what you say, everyone will understand it differently.

Everyone has a different context and a different language.

Everyone has different priorities.

And that makes it very tempting for the preacher

            to say as little as possible,

            to make no grand claims,

            and to avoid, if at all possible,

            recommending concrete courses of action.

I confess to doing this myself.

It’s not quite as cowardly as it sounds at first.

A congregation is a complex system,

            and a very small force

            can cause a very large change

            with unpredictable results.

So, it’s usually wise to go one step at a time.

Looking back, you’ll remember the major course corrections,

            but it is the accumulation of individual steps,

            putting one foot in front of the other,

            day in and day out,

            that gets you somewhere.

Remember that.

Still, every once in a while,

            we have to shake things up.

So here it is.

Everything is holy:

            from the altar to the street,

            from the human mind to the lowest bacterium,

            from a drug addict to the president of the United States,

            saints and sinners,

            human and inhuman.

There is no cavern so dark that God is not there.

There is not a single thing in the wide cosmos

            unworthy of our love,

            and in which we may not see,

                        if only very faintly,

            the image of God.

This is what it means for God to see that all things are good.

This is what it means for Christ to be the logos of the cosmos,

            the reason and pattern and order of the universe.

There is no war, for Jesus is the alpha and the omega,

            the all in all of all there is.

If this does not deeply offend you,

            I suspect you have not fully grasped it.

It offends me, and I’m the one saying it.

Anyone can see that the world is profoundly messed up.

We have harmed one another,

            wounded our nation,

            wounded our planet,

            and weaponized theology.

How could we possibly say that everything is holy?

What does that even mean?

It means we have an existential choice to make,

            a fundamental decision about how we approach the world.

I cannot defend it on any other grounds,

            it is the first choice and perhaps the last.

Either God is in all things, or God is not.

And if God is not there, this place,

no matter how small, and dark, and cramped

becomes a God of its own.

It exists for some other reason,

            has some other purpose,

            witnesses to some other truth.

And suddenly, there is a war in Heaven.

            Good A and good B.

At best, we call this Dualism,

            a war of equals.

At worst, it is an excuse for the powerful to oppress the weak.

And that is how it usually appears,

            in stories and theology.

We are told to ignore, to hate, to conquer, to destroy,

            that which is not God.

You can find it in scripture; I don’t deny it.

You can find passages to support Dualism and Conquest

So deep is the choice, so central to our view of the world,

            that once we have chosen it, we can find it anywhere.

No one can make us see what we refuse to see,

            know what we refuse to know,

            love what we refuse to love.

To choose a divided universe,

            to make our god less than God,

            is to adopt moral blinders,

            that blot out everything else.

A person who is not “of God” is a disposable person.

            I cannot accept this.

Even a rock which is not “of God,”

as tool if not as an object of love in its own right,

is a negligible rock.

I cannot accept this.

It does not fit with the God of Genesis and John,

            the God we meet in Jesus,

            the God who not only lived and died for us,

                        but returned for us after we had killed him,

            the God who permeates Creation.

And yet, we know that the world is messed up.

            Creation groans with the weight of malice,

                        sickness and death and separation.

            We deny God in one another and in the world God has made.

How do we reconcile the two insights,

            the goodness and the unsatisfactory-ness of our surroundings?

Let me suggest that the sacraments and the church

            are not our response to God,

                        or not just our response to God,

            but God’s response to us.

We cannot see that the whole world is holy,

            so God uses the church

            to set things apart

            and says, “look at this; this is holy.”

All bread is holy. All bread is miraculous.

            What could be more amazing than our ability

                        to take that which is not us and turn it into our very bodies?

            What could be more miraculous than our relationship

                        with wheat and micro-organisms

                        that turns sunlight into nutrition,

                        manna from heaven?

            But we forget,

                        and so we set aside this bread,

                        and say “look at this; this is holy”

                        in hopes that one day,

                        we will see God in all bread.

All people are holy. All people are divine.

            What could be more amazing than memory, reason, and skill,

                        our ability to see and understand and change the world?

            What could be more miraculous than our ability to repent,

                        to change our minds,

                        to be more than the product of our environment?

            But we forget,

                        and so we accept those who come to us,

                                    and come to God with us,

                        and we baptize them

                                    in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,

                        in hopes that one day,

                        we will see God in all people.

Jesus did not go to John in order to receive some perfection he lacked.

            God’s grace is not a commodity.

            Baptism is not certification of holiness,

a get out of Hell free card, or ticket to Heaven.

Jesus went to John, so that he could be seen to be holy,

            and perhaps so that he could see himself as holy.

Jesus went to John to enter into a relationship of grace,

            where two people recognized God’s will in one another.

Theologians call this sanctification: to set apart, to declare holy, to consecrate.

            The common invisible holy becomes specially, visibly sacred.

If that were the whole story, it would not be enough.

If John baptized Jesus and no one else…

            If he did not speak truth to Herod…

If Jesus did send out his disciples…

            If Jesus did not return to Jerusalem…

Then the story would not be told.

When we set apart the sacred,

            so that we may, ever and always,

            ignore the secular,

            we blind ourselves to the holy.

We end up worshiping a god who is less than all in all,

            less than the alpha and the omega,

            less than God.

Sanctification that stops is idolatry.

Turning to God and not walking forward is not true faith.

The process of sanctification starts with bread and wine,

            but it will not be finished until everyone is fed.

It starts with baptism,

            but it will not be finished until we respect the dignity of every human being.

It is not magic, but neither is it only psychological.

            It is an act that participates in the grace it recognizes.

            It is a mustard seed that grows into a tree.

            It is a truth that reveals other truths.

And we become one with Jesus Christ,

            God from God,

            light from light,

            true God from true God,

            begotten not made.

We join the body of Christ.

I am here this week for a retreat,

            joining with the Society of Ordained Scientists,

            to renew our commitment to God, to one another, and to the aims of the Society

  • To offer to God in our ordained role the work of science and technology in the exploration and stewardship of creation.
  • To express both the commitment of the church to the scientific and technological enterprise and our concern for its impact on the world.
  • To develop a fellowship of prayer for ordained scientists by the following of a common rule.
  • To support each other in our vocation.
  • To serve the Church in its relation to science and technology.

Because there are not two worlds,

            one sacred and one secular,

            one scientific and one theological,

            one material and one spiritual.

There is one world.

And God who made all things

            invites us to see and know and love all things

            as confusing as that may be.

God invites us to search out unknown, invisible, abundant grace,

            to make it known, to make it visible, to make it common place.

It will transform us, and it will transform the world.

You need not be ordained, and you need not be a scientist.

You need only be willing to look for the truth, no matter how uncomfortable,

            to seek light amidst the darkness,

            to be open to love amidst strife.

And you will need to make this commitment,

            to know and to love one more thing tomorrow than today.

Can you do that?

Can you find one person you have ignored and talk to them?

            Can you see God in them, when they do not see God in themselves?

Can you find one new and wonderful fact and share it?

            Can you look for the miraculous in the mundane?

These are not abstract recommendations, by the way.

            I mean to tell you to say hello to someone new, someone different.

                        It seems small, but can be very hard to do.

            I mean to tell you to find a source of information that you trust

                        and learn something new every day.

I am not perfect at these disciplines,

            but I try, day by day, to make the sacred circle larger,

            in hopes that I will, one day, grow into the Cosmos God has made.

Posted by: dacalu | 10 November 2019

Sorry / Not Sorry

Words can be used strategically. Living as we do in a time of verbal warfare, I look for words that deescalate, words that bring peace and connection, words that build relationship. Far too often I default to the phrases taught me by society without thinking carefully about the effects they have. With that in mind, here are few thoughts on the word “sorry.”

I try to say “sorry” only when I am.

I say I’m sorry when I feel genuine sadness that something has occurred, regret at my role in it, and have rethought my action. If I am truly sorry then I would not make the same choice again. This constitutes a meaningful apology.

I avoid the word when I can’t say these things..

I could say that I’m sorry for someone. Something bad has happened to them – outside of my control – and I feel sad because of it. That is genuine sorrow, but I’m not sure it is helpful. I would much rather be sorry with someone.

Brené Brown promotes empathy over sympathy, allowing yourself into their situation and their emotion instead of judging it. To say that I’m sorry for someone or about someone turns me into an observer. I want to be a companion.

To express sorrow at someone’s response becomes an attack, an escalation. “I’m sorry you feel that way.” It expresses sorrow over my situation, not theirs. It sends the message that I am sad because of their action and would change that if I could.

I also avoid saying “I’m sorry” when I could say “thank you.” In place of “I’m sorry I’m late,” I try to say, “thank you for waiting.” I may be truly sorry, but I’m also truly grateful. I care as much about their virtues as I do about my faults. It seems kind to communicate that.

I value repentance – genuine reconsideration and personal change. I also value forgiveness – genuine release from obligation and hope for reconciliation. One does not require the other, but it makes it so much easier. A truthful “I’m sorry” can make reconciliation possible when nothing else can. We need this word. We need this idea that mistakes can be corrected.

We need “I’m sorry” to do that work – to convey sorrow, regret, and repentance. If we use it too often, it loses its power. If I say it when I don’t mean it, what will I say when I do?

Posted by: dacalu | 23 September 2019

Christ in Creation

This Sunday, I had the privilege of worshiping with the Church of the Apostles as they celebrated the resurrection (every Sunday) and specifically Christ in the Cosmos.

from “How Wonderful The Three-In-One” text by Brian Wren

Before the flow of dawn and dark

Creation’s Lover dreamed of earth

And with a caring deep and wise,

All things conceived and brought to life.”

Readings

Proverbs 8:22-31 (“The Lord created me at the beginning of his work” about Sophia/Chokmah/Wisdom)

Psalm 104:24-26 (“How manifold are your works, O Lord!”)

John 6:41-51 (“I am the living bread”)

Sermon

There is simply too much to preach on, here.

God’s having a bit of fun with us.

Sophia, Leviathan, and the Bread of Heaven.

A friend of mine joked recently that Jesus is the ideal example of being transgendered.

            Wisdom self-identifies as feminine in Proverbs –

Chokmah in Hebrew, Sophia in Greek

but later self-identifies as masculine in Jesus.

On the surface, this appears to be a clever quip, but it reveals something important.

As the alpha and the omega, Jesus was Christ before male and female existed.

Jesus reminds us the universe has laws,

but also that God stands above and beneath and behind those laws.

“When there were no depths I was brought forth”

Pulled from out of a hole when there was no hole.

Made to stand when there was no place to stand.

Jesus is, strangely enough, the foundation for science,

            the promise that the world is orderly enough for us to understand,

            but surprising enough that we actually have to look to figure it out.

Once again, this is more than just cleverness.

            It was a very real debate in the Middle Ages.

            Thomas Aquinas said we could know, by intellect alone,

the rules by which God ordered creation from the beginning of time.

            William of Ockham argued that God can, and does change God’s mind.

                        We have no choice but to constantly observe creation,

                                    if we want to understand.

            The founders of modern science were working out this very problem.

So, I will say it again.

            Jesus stands at the crossroads.

            He is both knowable and unknown,

                        the guarantor of rules and the promise of freedom from them.

            Christians study the universe

as the beginning, and not the end, of knowledge,

as an opportunity, and not a constraint,

as a pathway to true wisdom.

It helps to come to Proverbs with some knowledge of Hebrew cosmology.

There is no word for real nothingness.

            The mind slips into vacuum and void, space and emptiness,

                        but those are not really nothingness.

            They are words for time and distance without substance.

In the beginning was real no-thing-ness,

            Neither height nor depth nor energy, nor potential…

The Wisdom of God is an idea,

            the first hint of reality as we know reality,

            it is the plan for a cosmos,

            a totality of being.

It is a plan for us.

God drew a circle in the …

And God separated nothing from nothing

so that there was something in between.

This is, I think, what is meant by the waters above and the waters below.

Maybe waters is misleading.

            Tohu wa bohu, without form and void is confusing.

            We can call it the deep or the void or nothingness,

                        but we cannot comprehend it.

                        There is literally nothing to comprehend.

Jesus is the movement that makes comprehension possible,

            the word named some-thing

            and pointed to that which was before.

Jesus is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.

Speaking of waters is surely misleading,

            but no more so than quantum foam or vacuum energy or the initial singularity.

When I say this is a horribly insufficient description,

            please take me seriously.

            It’s truly embarrassing, but it is the best I think we can do at the moment.

So, God separated nothing from nothing

and there was something in between.

And God saw that it was good.

Jesus was the circle,

            and Jesus permeated the something,

            because all of it,

            beginning and end and middle,

            was brought forth from the no-thing-ness,

            so that thing-ness itself is only thing-ness by God’s action,

            in Jesus.

And now my head hurts.

Go home and meditate on that bit for a couple decades,

            and, if it starts to make sense, come tell me.

I would love to understand it.

In the meantime, we have the simple version.

God made everything through Jesus

            and, because of that, God can be found anywhere and everywhere.

Jesus is God’s wisdom,

            through which the universe makes sense,

            and through whom we make sense of the universe.

Better yet, because God was found in our likeness,

            we have the very image and likeness of God.

If Jesus is too hard to see in the rocks and hills, sky and sea,

            look for him in the face of your neighbor,

            in your own being.

As a horrible, terrible, miserable metaphor,

            Jesus is both operating system and user interface for the universe.

I could preach for an hour on everything that’s wrong with that,

            but it gets at Jesus’ role as governor and mediator,

            essential to, but not the same as, the world itself.

Leviathan, meanwhile, is a background process.

It only gets mentioned a few times in the Bible,

            usually as an invocation of some-thing swimming in the depths,

            some-thing whose thingness is not our thingness.

Leviathan was not made for us, nor we for Leviathan.

Maybe it’s necessary for the cosmos.

            God seems to care about it,

as God cares for lions and ostriches and cedar trees,

and lilies and sparrows.

Sometimes we need reminding that we participate in creation.

And sometimes we need reminding that creation is not,

            in the end, all about us.

Jesus invites us to be more than we are,

            more than individuals,

            more than tribes,

            more even than species.

Jesus invites us into harmony with all that is.

Ethics, like science, requires this strange humility,

            recognizing that there is an order, but that we don’t know it yet.

So, I will say it again.

            Jesus stands at the crossroads.

            He is both knowable and unknown,

                        the guarantor of rules and the promise of freedom from them.

            Christians study the universe

as the beginning, and not the end, of knowledge,

as an opportunity, and not a constraint,

as a pathway to true wisdom.

We have an opportunity as humans.

We live in the not-yet.

Just as God imagined the world in Jesus,

            so, we imagine God in Jesus,

            and we imagine the world as it could be.

We imagine neighbors we have not met.

            We have hope for those we meet,

                        faith in those we are learning about,

                        and love for those we know.

The truth path,

            the path of Jesus, leads from home to Leviathan,

            from the center of the circle to the very edge,

            and, perhaps, beyond.

Jesus’ contemporaries complained.

            They said he could not be God, he could not be all in all,

                        because he was the son of that nice couple down the street.

Modern thinkers make the same complaint.

            Theologians sometimes call it embarrassing particularity.

Jesus is both immanent and transcendent, immediate and eternal,

            available and unbelievable.

You are as well.

If I have done my job,

            I have not convinced you of any factual claims.

There is no logical argument here, no empirical proof, no incontrovertible evidence.

            What a silly thought.

If I have done my job, I have given you hope.

            That which you do not know, you can know.

                        Be curious.

            That which you do know, you can love.

                        Be kind.

            That which you love endures.

                        Because God is love, the ineffable, eternal, wondrous

                        made tangible.

Posted by: dacalu | 23 September 2019

Confession for the Season of Creation

I wrote this confession and reassurance/absolution for a service on creation and the cosmos at Church of the Apostles.

Confession

God of the sparrow, have mercy upon us.

We have fallen short in our care for the world.

We have squandered every good gift –

            depleting the land, poisoning the water, and fouling the air,

            killing your children and harming your house,

                        beyond our ability to fix or even understand,

            turning from you and from one another.

We are sorry for our sins against the Earth,

            for choosing convenience over compassion,

                        whim over wisdom,

                        and self over service.

We ask for forgiveness and hope,

            that we may once again be stewards in your household,

            true friends to life,

            and heirs of your transforming love,

            through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Absolution/Reassurance

Know that you are forgiven, good, holy and capable.

May God visit you with grace as vast as the mountains and the seas. May Christ fill you with abundant life and wondrous growth. May the Spirit breath such breath into your lungs that every word and act spills forth new life into the world. And may every injustice be blown away.

Amen.

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