Love, imperfectly known…

I have been thinking a lot lately about the words of the General Confession used in Rite II of the Book of Common Prayer. I know, strange words for someone who insists that she continues to identify as with the Baptist distinctives as a format building block of her faith.  But, despite the fact that Episcopalians everywhere often begin each morning with these words (as they are the opening corporate prayer of the Morning Prayer discipline), these are words (and sentiments) which belong to the whole Body of Christ.

Let’s read together these words of confession, and then I’ll share what I’ve been thinking:

Most merciful God, 
we confess that we have sinned against you 
in thought, word, and deed, 
by what we have done, 
and by what we have left undone. 
We have not loved you with our whole heart; 
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. 
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. 
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, 
have mercy on us and forgive us; 
that we may delight in your will, 
and walk in your ways, 
to the glory of your Name. Amen.

Always, always when I read this prayer, the line that sticks in my heart (and a bit in my throat as well) is the greatest sin:  “We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”

I will admit that I feel the pang of sin most strongly on the statement of the first failure, because I always believe that I could learn to love God more fully.  I could learn to open my heart to that mystical presence, I could be more accepting of what I cannot understand, I could merge more completely with the divine, I could be less distracted by the shiny world around me.  And while I feel a slight twinge of my failing as I read the second phrase, “…we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves,” and while I might spend a moment rehearsing the broken relationships in my life that need healing or the stranger whom I did not adequately welcome or the person in need I failed to help adequately, I somehow am more forgiving of my own failing.  Somehow, in the face of this statement of confession, I expect myself to fail and I am therefore, well, not as concerned when I do.

Yesterday, however, I had a new thought.  What if the real sin here is this:  that we do indeed love our neighbors as ourselves and what we manifest all around us is our own inability to offer God’s love to understand and embody God’s love for our own person?  What if the state of our quotes-about-love_2613-0relationships and of the world around us is not a statement of our failure to love our neighbors as we would love ourselves, but a statement of our total inability to understand the enormity of the love that God offers to us and to all the world.

We cannot love ourselves as God loves us, we therefore cannot love others with something we do not understand.  Brother Emmanuel of Taizé refers to this human foible as “love, imperfectly known.”  In fact that is the title of his book that I began to read after I had the opportunity to meet him and worship with him recently at the Virginia Theological Seminary.  The result of our inability to know God’s love for ourselves is, for Brother Emmanuel, the root cause of all our failings, all our sin, and in his words, all the evil of the world.  In his book, also titled Love, Imperfectly Known:  Beyond Spontaneous Representations of God (2011), he suggests that we free ourselves to know our loving God more clearly, without the filter of the types of psychological and theological conditioning that keep us separated from God, from ourselves, and ultimately from one another (Kindle Edition, LOC 152).  According to Brother Emmanuel, we must…

…quest for the ultimate meaning of life, the ultimate meaning of love.  That will have repercussions on daily life, particularly the loving words and actions that may take place in it (Kindle Edition, LOC 163).

So, I have changed my mind.  You see, the words of confession that I have not loved my neighbor as myself may or may not be reminding me that I should forgive more, complain less, and help more people more often.  These words are most assuredly reminding me that I must learn to love better, learn to love more like God loves me.  And, the hidden meaning in those words?  Before I can do any of these things with any authenticity at all, I must learn that I, too, am worthy of love because I am already loved with a love that exceeds all my human ability to comprehend.

I have indeed, loved you, my neighbor, as I have loved myself.  And for that, I am sorry and I humbly do confess.

What I’ve Learned so Far…Learning is Fundamental

I am sitting here at my desk on a frigid bright morning, missing a class on Genesis 22 because of car fires and accidents on the highway that takes me out to the seminary.  My brain and my soul are still full from last night’s discussion of the Holiness Code and its role in the land promises of the Pentateuch.  And, if I haven’t lost you already in the face of this biblical techno-speak, I would point out to you what might not be obvious — I GRADUATED IN MAY.  WHY AM I TAKING TWO BIBLICAL STUDIES CLASSES?

Because, my friends, over the past months, I have understood some important things about myself and  what it means for me to live as a disciple.  Most importantly, I have learned that the quirk in my personality that I thought was an inability to launch was, in fact, the call to practice what is for me the most important of all spiritual disciplines, my most cherished path to a deeper relationship with my God, that of study and learning.

When I began my series called “What I’ve Learned so Far…”, I thought of the title as a way to shine a light on the particular gleanings I gathered during my 2012-09-19_14-07-56_978seminary study experience.  I thought that was important since those experiences came as I blended two (well, more than two really) traditions: I was following a learning path that was primarily designed for the formation of those in the Episcopal church when I was, well, certainly not a practicing Episcopalian.  Not much time needed to pass after graduation for me to understand that the seminary experience can (and in my case did), stoke the fire of a life long quest for learning.  I realized that at seminary I had truly discovered, well, my people — the questioning.

Richard Forster’s description of study as a spiritual discipline has finally come to life for me in my own spiritual journey:

Many Christians remain in bondage to fears and anxieties simply because they do not avail themselves of the Discipline of study. They may be faithful in church attendance and earnest in fulfilling their religious duties, and still they are not changed. I am not here speaking only of those who are going through mere religious forms, but of those who are genuinely seeking to worship and obey Jesus Christ as Lord and Master. They may sing with gusto, pray in the Spirit, live as obediently as they know, even receive divine visions and revelations, and yet the tenor of their lives remains unchanged. Why? Because they have never taken up one of the central ways God uses to change us: study.

Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline, Kindle Edition (San Francisco: Harper Collins Inc., 2009) 62-63.

You see,  I do not study out of a sense of vocation in any way that this word vocation is understood in my cultural context.  I do not study to get a better job or a certain job.  I do not study to objectify or to control or even really to understand. My call to study comes out of the very mystery that is God — through study and learning, I walk more closely with God, I love more deeply, I experience love more clearly.   I hear God’s voice through hours spent learning to read the Hebrew Bible in its original language;  I learn of God’s love through source criticism and literary analysis and inter-textual study of the sacred books. At this time in my life, the classroom and the fellowship of others in this kind of study is the most sacred place on earth for me, more sacred than any cathedral or church sanctuary. And at last I understand that, for me, there is no separation between my intellect and my heart; those walls have come a tumblin’ down, as the song says.

Even ten years ago, I would have interpreted this kind of call to discipline as a sign that I should redouble my efforts, get the PhD.D., make the sacrifices, fight the age and sex discrimination present in the academic community and go for a life in academia.  The call is strong, right?  That is the way I experience God, right?  I must be meant to follow this path as my way of living, surely?

Well, yes and know.  Part of my post-seminary learning is this:  God’s call to know you, God’s call to embrace you, frankly, has not one thing to do with the structures of this human world.  That invitation has nothing to do with making a living in this world; there is no worldly career advice embedded in it.  It has nothing to do with success or fame or even acceptance and belonging.  And it has no relationship to the institutions we have created, even (or perhaps especially) those created in His name.

So if you wonder where I am, I am probably in the corner with my nose stuck in a commentary, puzzling over the role of the ancestors in the Genesis narrative.  Or maybe I’m sitting in a classroom or a library somewhere, following some tantalizing crooked finger of God that is leading me on to some new piece of understanding.  One of the great learnings I have received is that thinking about your faith as a scholar and living into your faith as a mystic are not mutually exclusive — that, friends, is my life.  And for that lesson, Virginia Theological Seminary and San Francisco Theological Seminary and the Columbia Theological Seminary, I will give thanks to the end of my days.

Amen.

 

Trees and Taize…

I’m into the third week of my program here at San Francisco Theological Seminary and I am thinking about many things…but most of all, trees and Taize.  Just indulge me, for a moment.

As a traveler, I always do the best I can to experience the place I am visiting, so of course I have devoted any spare moment to exploration.  I spent hours in the beautiful Sonoma Valley and the Russian River Valley and last weekend I visited the Sonoma coast;  but what touches my imagination and my spirit most is, well, the trees.

Redwoods, that is. The big trees.  I first visited Muir Woods 15 years ago and those trees have lived on in my memory as magnificent creations of God and guardians of a history that individual human beings simply cannot span.   So I visited Muir Woods again on this trip, on our mid-program Sabbath afternoon.  This last weekend, however, while touring the wine country’s outer reaches, I stopped at the Armstrong Woods Reserve Park.

The two experiences were polar opposites.  Muir Woods, beautiful, with beautiful easy paths and boardwalks, a cafe and a gift shop, was also full of tourists from all over the world — tourists who failed to read the sign requesting IMG_3716“quiet” as you enter the forest.  It is, for me, impossible to experience these redwood giants without a sense of reverence, even in the midst of French tourists jumping over the boundary line clearly marked with a “Stay on the Path” sign so that they could stand next to the tree for a better picture, so the experience was still a wonderful one.

Armstrong Woods, however, that much further from San Francisco and therefore not subjected to Grey Line tours advertising “Muir Woods and Sausalito,” provided a true experience of mystery.  In an early morning fog and mist, I approached the entrance to the park.  It was deserted — only two cars in the parking lot, no one at the ranger station. After studying the trail map, I decided that it was okay to continue into the park and began my walk along the Pioneer Trail.  And as I wandered deeper and deeper into the mist and the trees and the lichen-covered logs that form the forest floor, from deep inside me something began to take shape.

A song.  A song from chapel during these past weeks.  A song in the style of Taize; a song quoting from the wonderful text of Psalm 1:

Water our lives with ever-flowing streams of your grace
Bear in our lives, creating God, the living fruits of your love
(Text: Andrew Dreitcer, from Psalm 1:3, music Stephen Iverson)

And as I wandered the paths of the reserve, stopping to stand before trees that had lived in that place for more than 1400 years,  trees that had lived with the indigenous people and watched the change of power to those coming from European cultures, trees once threatened and now adored,  trees that had stood almost as long as the church that is the institution of our faith on this earth, the song grew inside me and raised in me that feeling of the mystery of all things that is, for me, the experience of the presence of my God.

That, my friends, I now know is the living power of the worship style known as Taize.  I have long known some of the music of Taize; I have read about the place and the ideas behind the worship.  I have never had the opportunity to worship in this method, twice daily, for an extended period of time.  And now I know that, just as I suspected, Taize uses the power of music as I have always believed it existed:

Singing is one of the most essential elements of worship. Short songs, repeated again and again, give it a meditative character. Using just a few words they express a basic reality of faith, quickly grasped by the mind. As the words are sung over many times, this reality gradually penetrates the whole being. Meditative singing thus becomes a way of listening to God. It allows everyone to take part in a time of prayer together and to remain together in attentive waiting on God, without having to fix the length of time too exactly.

To open the gates of trust in God, nothing can replace the beauty of human voices united in song. This beauty can give us a glimpse of “heaven’s joy on earth,” as Eastern Christians put it. And an inner life begins to blossom within us.

These songs also sustain personal prayer. Through them, little by little, our being finds an inner unity in God. They can continue in the silence of our hearts when we are at work, speaking with others or resting. In this way prayer and daily life are united. They allow us to keep on praying even when we are unaware of it, in the silence of our hearts (Taize Community).

Most of all, worship in the style of Taize provides me with something that I have been crying out for:  it allows (and requires) my participation; it protects and demands my agency as a member of the community.  Lately, much worship has seemed dogmatic to me, a series of so-called professionals “telling” me how to worship, what to worship, what to do — what I have come to call the “God through the eye-dropper” affect.  I have become increasing unable to tolerate such worship; it is not an experience of God for me.  It is certainly not the “work of the people,”  that to-the-point translation of the word liturgy from the language of its origins.

Taize is indeed the work of the people; without the people it does not exist.  And that morning, among the tall trees, the song became a prayer and became part of me and the forest and all that was.  I was changed at a fundamental level by the act of singing, not there, but in chapel.   The song had, for me, become not a song but a practice, an experience of God.

Robert Wuthnow, in his book about religion in the United States from 1950 to the present (After Heaven), gives me clear language for this change that I have been going through, the change that came to life and became my own in the redwood forest.  He defines three models for American spirituality:  the spirituality of dwelling, which is all about habitation and is placed-dependent and leads to the idea that the community is all-important and provides the answer  to all questions of faith, serving up to its members a curated experience of God; the spirituality of seeking, which led to the expansion of the evangelical and Pentecostal movements as well as any other movement that encourages the individual to seek their own way to God without the aid of others; and finally, the spirituality of practice,  which combines many of the ways to God experienced by those who are seeking but combines it with a greater sense of discipline AND eliminates the idea that alone, in our room, without others, is the best way to encounter God.  In a spirituality of practice, the agency of the individual is retained; the importance of the individual experience of God is emphasized; and the simple fact that, as suggested in Matthew 18:20, we cannot experience any of this without the presence of others, is fundamental.

Taize is just such a practice. Spiritual direction is just such a practice.  For me, music is such a practice.  Study is such a practice.  Walking among the trees became such a practice on this trip.  I think, that in my life, it might be time to change that old musician’s joke about Carnegie Hall.  How about:

Q:  How does one experience the presence of God?

A:   Practice, practice, practice.

Sorry, I couldn’t resist.  Practice requires participation and at the same time it acknowledges that the answers are within and  that those answers are best revealed in the presence of others.  That sounds like worship to me.  That, and a long walk among the worlds tallest trees.