Thursday, January 22, 2015

The call to Christian foolishness...

In 1969, Harvey Cox, then Hollis Research Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School wrote these prophetic words:

Humanity has paid a frightful price for the present opulence of Western industrial society. Part of the price is exacted daily from the poor nations of the world whose fields and forests garnish our tables while we push their people further into poverty. Part is paid by the plundered poor who dwell within the gates of the rich nations without sharing in the plenty. But part of the price has been paid by affluent Western man himself. While gaining the whole world he has been losing his own soul. He has purchased prosperity at the cost of a staggering impoverishment of the vital elements of his life. These elements are festivity - the capacity for genuine revelry and joyous celebration - and fantasy - the faculty for envisioning radically alternate life situations. Festivity and fantasy are not only worthwhile in themselves; they are absolutely vital to human life.

Forty six years later, Pope Francis made a similar observation: many of our leaders in industry, politics and religion have contracted a type of spiritual Alzheimer’s disease, he said, where we forget both the lessons of history and salvation.

Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape. ... Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.(It kills lives and it kills souls.) How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion.

This morning, in part three of my “Fools for Christ” series I want to explicitly state for you the sources of my theological roots. Lest there be any ambiguity about my deepest intellectual and spiritual convictions, I want to share clearly with you why it is I do what I do here and throughout ministry. Because, you see, from time to time, I apparently confuse people: I’ve been told that I sound like an evangelical when I preach.  I love Jesus and cherish my intimacy with him so I’m not afraid to talk about that love out loud. What’s more I am fascinated, intrigued and nurtured by God’s holy word found in the Bible and cherish the chance to discern its wisdom for our generation. And therein, my friends, lays the problem:

Some people confuse my love of Christ, my enthusiastic approach to worship and my reverence for the Scriptures with fundamentalism. In essence, they mistake style for content – and by the time they discover that they are 1000% wrong – they tell me that I have deceived them.  So let me be totally transparent:  the Lord I serve is NOT a religious terrorist who wants to beat us into submission or drive fear and shame into our flesh. I proclaim only a God of love who has saturated existence with grace and aches for us to rest in the beauty of this gift. I am NOT a 21st century Jonah.

Others have told me that all my Jesus talk drives them crazy. How can you insist that Jesus is Lord in a post-modern context when all meaning is enveloped in relativity? Please, they tell me, give up your superstitious ways and get with the modern program. And there are even a few who have concluded that I am just a weird, ultra-liberal, pseudo-Pentecostal, wild man with no theological grounding –  a spirit-filled, Zen Buddhist snake handler – a religious loose cannon who knows no decorum and respects no tradition.

So I thought the time had come to set the record straight – especially since I’m talking about the foolishness of Christ for our generation – and I don’t want any stylistic concerns to obscure the message. In my theological universe, there are eight orthodox, mainstream, Bible believing, contemporary theologians who have shaped and informed my spiritual commitments and understanding of God at work in our lives, hearts and human history: 

+  Bono from U2 who sings about grace from the discipline of rock and roll

+ Eugene Peterson whose reworking of the Bible into The Message has been revolutionary

+ Fr. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest at the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, NM

+ Douglas John Hall, the master of neo-orthodoxy in Montreal

+ Dietrich Bonheoffer (the German Lutheran theologian who was martyred because of his opposition to Hitler’s racist and anti-Semitic violence during WW II

+ Frederick Buechner, the Presbyterian bard of Vermont

+ Clarence Jordon of Koinonia Farms in Georgia

+  And Harvey Cox, late of Harvard Divinity School

Yes, I cherish Henri Nouwen. To be sure I have read ALL the great liberation and feminist theologians, too and value their courage and intellectual integrity.  And the works of both Sr. Joan Chittister and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel have been foundational and inspirational. But Bono, Peterson, Rohr, Hall, Bonheoffer, Buechner, Jordan and Cox are my go to scholars because they are grounded in the historic rituals of the church AND awakened to the spirit of renewal, faith, hope and love that is so essential to the Reformed and reforming tradition I call home. 

Today I want to call special attention to Brother Harvey Cox – the first theologian I ever studied – and a guide and mentor to me for over 45 years. He was a professor at Harvard and a protégé of Paul Tillich and Bonheoffer and his modus operandi was articulated in the ground breaking book, The Secular City. After living in Berlin for a year, and teaching on both sides of the barbed wire barrier, he wrote what became his masterwork in 1965 – the central theme of which made sense 50 years ago and even more sense today.  In a clarifying essay penned 25 years after the publication of The Secular City, Cox stated that he still stands by his thesis:

Secularization—if it is not permitted to calcify into an ideology (which I called "secular- ism")—is not everywhere and always an evil. It prevents powerful religions from acting on their theocratic pretensions. It allows people to choose among a wider range of worldviews. Today, in parallel fashion, it seems obvious that the resurgence of religion in the world is not everywhere and always a  good thing. Do the long-suffering people of Iran believe that after the removal of their ruthless shah, the installation of a quasi-theocratic Islamic republic has turned out to be a wholly positive move? Do those Israelis and Palestinians who yearn for a peaceful settlement of the West Bank bloodletting believe that either the Jewish or the Muslim religious parties are helping? How do the citizens of Beirut and Belfast feel about the continuing vitality of religion?

His thinking resonated with me as a young man entering college in 1970 at the United Church of Christ Lakeland College and it still does. There are blessings that come to real people when theocratic regulations and blue laws are liberalized or even abandoned. We know, for example, that as much as we cherish Sabbath, it is a good thing that grocery stores are open on Sundays. Or that women can vote. Or that health care is becoming a right rather than a privilege given to just the wealth. Cox celebrated the blessings of secularization and he got it right.

What he left out, however, is something that all well-intentioned liberals tend to forget but must come to terms with if they are to be honest and faithful: that is, that all human beings are filled with goodness even as we are sinners.

+ Liberals don’t like the word sinner – it certainly has been abused and misused – but like St. Paul told us well before Harvey Cox was ever born:  all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. All. Like the African-American spiritual makes clear: it’s not my sister, nor my brother but its ME O Lord who’s standing in the need of prayer.

+ Secularization, it seems, created new opportunities for freedom and imagination, while also opening the door for novel and unexpected forms of fear, depravity, hopelessness and sin.  A friend of mine who used to work for the Rand Foundation called this reality the doctrine of unintended con-sequences (which is just a modern way of talking about original sin): not only can things go terribly wrong in real life with human beings, they will go terribly wrong given human nature, but we won’t know when or how this will happen until it happens.

That is why religious conservatives insist upon rule keeping and playing it safe: they know that chaos is always lurking just around the corner so better to move slowly than open Pandora’s Box. By 1969, however, there was no going back-wards in Western culture. The conservative Islamic revolutions of the Middle East may have tried to turn the cultural clock back to the Caliphate, but it never really worked – even in Saudi Arabia where sexual repression and drug addiction among the elite is rampant.

And if it couldn’t really work there, there was no possibility of going back to the “good old
days” of conservative, middle class, WASP values in the US of A once birth control, social mobility and civil rights became the rule of law.  Professor Cox was taking all of this in, you see, and in his next essay, The Feast of Fools, he offered some correctives. He had come to see that when religious rules evaporate in a society for whatever reason, something always races in to fill the vacuum. For a time in the United States, that something was sensation – sex, drugs and rock and roll – freedom, abandon and the blurring of lines and limitations. But by 1969, there was a back lash – the so-called Silent Majority that was terrified of our unbridled freedom - and Richard Nixon rode this fear all the way to the White House.

+ Tracing the trajectory of his own social history, Cox realized that secularization first encourages freedom, but then morphs into license which provokes fear and repression as a countervailing force to the inevitable excesses of that original blessing.

+ Did you get all that? What I was trying to say is that sinful people will always screw good things up – and that applies to freedom as much as grace – because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

What if the best in our old religious traditions could create a spiritual dialectic that not only accepted the ambiguities of human freedom, but taught, trained and helped every day people to embrace freedom and grace with a playful and humble respectability? That is what The Feast of Fools wrestled with: a playful and humble respect for grace and freedom. It was a way of doing spirituality and formation that not only grabbed my imagination, but shaped my spiritual, intellectual and practical work as a pastor for over 30 years. It became the core of my doctoral dissertation and gave shape and form to my prayer life, too. Further, the insights of Harvey Cox pushed me towards ministry back in 1968 and sustain me today when the burdens of the institutional church become too ponderous, ugly or just plain boring.

And one more confession: it was Cox who encouraged me to take the foolishness of Christ seriously. St. Paul was explicit: the ways of Jesus are NOT socially, politically or economically congruent with the status quo. Speaking to the status seeking believers of first century Corinth he said:

Look we are fools for the sake of Christ… We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and home-less and we grow weary from the work of our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day.

You can be religious and a part of the status quo; you can attend to the rituals of tradition and philosophy and seek the ways of power. But you can’t be a faithful follower of the one who died on the Cross without giving up all illusions of traditional power and prestige. Because if you want to follow Jesus, like Andrew and Simon Peter or James and John in the gospel for today, you have to become a fool: one who trusts that God’s blessings are greater and more authentic than all trappings of social respectability, power and prestige.

In retrospect, you see, I was drawn to Cox – and through him to the foolishness of Christ – because he incarnated for me a way into Christ’s foolishness.  As a straight, white, middle class man I needed a guide into the foolishness of Christ because I came of age in Darien, CT – a wealthy suburb for New York City executives – and I went to church in Darien. My youth group was VERY, VERY affluent in Darien: we had ski weekend trips that were NOT subsidized. We did mission trips all over the country and there were NO scholarships available. It was just assumed that every family had lots of discretionary cash.

Now this was mostly a sweet place to grow up and I am grateful for the education I received and the friends I made as a working class kid amidst the splendor. But there were not obvious role models in Darien for becoming a fool for Christ. What’s more, being on the outside of affluence and looking in I could see that all that money and power and prestige didn’t make my peers any happier than me.  In fact, in my junior year of high school I had three friends who tried to kill them-selves – and one succeeded – making it clear that not all that glitters is gold. How did St. Bob Dylan put it? In some places money doesn’t talk, it swears – and leaves a whole lot of young people hurting, empty and afraid, too.

It was in this vacuum of hurt and chaos that Cox offered me an alternative – it was neither religious fundamentalism nor liberal naiveté – but rather the foolishness of Christ. And do you know where I first heard the theology of Harvey Cox and his invitation to become a fool for Christ? Any idea?  “Godspell.”  The Broadway musical “Godspell” began as a Master’s thesis project for a young student at Carnegie Mellon University who later went on to work in a spirituality and the arts project at St. John the Divine Cathedral in NYC.  It seems that this young student had read Feast of Fools and wrote a play about the foolishness of Christ as his master’s thesis. He even portrayed and described the character of Jesus in his play as a harlequin. A clown. If you’ve seen it, you know what I am saying is true.

Now in the Broadway play, “Godspell,” and the book Feast of Fools by Harvey Cox, there are two core ideas, two alternatives to the social stagnation of religion in America and the empty cruelty of a secular society obsessed with greed and fear: festivity and fantasy.

+  Festivity is a commitment to joy:  it is a celebration of life, the practice of hope despite all the evidence to the contrary, a willingness to give your life up for the common good.  Festivity is a spiritual discipline, a decision to see grace in every moment and trust that God is in charge – always – it is the path of awe born of devotion rather than obligation.  Jesus put it like this: I desire mercy not sacrifice… for I have come so that your joy may be full. Are you with me?  Festivity is a commitment to joy.

Fantasy is a commitment to prophetic playfulness:  it is a way of living that imagines and embraces life as it should be, not simply as it is. It embraces existence trust that every person matters and every soul has value – no one is taken for granted and all life is sacred – and that means plant life, dirt life, water life, animal life and human life – including infirm life, insane life and inchoate life. Jesus put this commitment to us like this:  unless ye become as like a child, you shall not enter the kingdom of God… so be not anxious. Fantasy is a commitment to prophetic playfulness.

And the more time I spend with the Gospels, the more I am certain that a life constructed
upon a foundation of fantasy and festivity is what attracted Andrew and Peter to follow Jesus, don’t you think? Jesus offered them a way of living that had meaning and depth beyond the obvious. It was baptized in joy and infused with possibilities. Jesus showed them how to trust God even while gazing at life as through a glass darkly.  He showed them how to turn bread and wine into a feast of faith and devotion. He turned the ancient prophetic poems of Israel into deeds and dreams that restored joy and justice – grace and gratitude – hope and true humility – to the heart of real life. The kingdom was not abstract or post-poned for some later time, it was about being embraced by God's love every day and in every way. The text tells us that Andrew and Simon Peter immediately dropped their nets and followed Jesus when his foolishness was revealed. And no wonder – it was good news.  No wonder people followed…

+ I did – when I first heard “Day by Day” from the show “Godspell” I knew that the foolish way of Jesus was for me. Earlier I had been touched and encouraged by his grace in an alternative church in Washington, DC, but it was that song that pushed me out of my safety zone and helped me follow Jesus into ministry.

+ My father, you see, didn’t want me to become a minister. He hated most ministers – his own father had been a minister – and he was a broken man who dumped my dad and grandmother for another life just as the country was coming out of the Great Depression. My father hated the humiliation he had to face as a pastor’s kid forced through a public divorce in the 30’s. And let’s not even mention the shame of his poverty.

My dad and I fought about my calling for decades – it was ugly and mean-spirited and heart-breaking – and while we finally resolved it, it took its toll. But you know what:  I did it any how – not as an adolescent prank – but because at some level I got what Paul was saying whenever I put on “Day by Day” on my record player. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly. We become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day… because we are fools for Christ.

Look, I’m not saying that I was better than my father – not at all – just that I had been touched by a power greater than his rules, my fears and all the middle class pressure and tradition that people told me would give my life meaning but pushed my peers towards suicide. It was the power of Christ’s foolishness that made sense to me – and the longer I’ve trusted it – the truer it has become for me. And back in the day, whenever I needed a reminder about the truth of Jesus and his foolish wisdom, I went to that song.  Not to church. Not to the Bible. Not even to prayer – although that song “Day by Day” IS a 13th century English prayer albeit with a distinctively 20th century folk-rock back beat – I went to that song. And that’s what I want to make clear to you today: in order to follow Jesus, to live into his foolishness and embrace his Cross, we need encouragement. 

+ Today’s psalm – Psalm 62 – tells us in the first Hebrew verse – not the Anglicized poetry of our Psalter, but the actual Hebrew – that: only as I move towards God am I at rest.  Only in God is my being quiet.

+ So beautiful, so true; so think about that: only as we move towards God’s truth – God’s will – God’s presence and God’s foolish wisdom do we find a stronghold – a resting place – quiet and order in the midst of chaos. 

Back in my day, Feast of Fools and “Day by Day” helped me reconnect and move towards
God, but my way isn’t your way. You need your own way – your own rescue and stronghold – your own path to help you turn back towards the Lord. Now I don’t know what encouragement – resting place – or strong hold helps you – I just know that you need it.  I need, you need it and we all need it. That’s why the Psalm ends by telling us there is ONE thing God has spoken – and it is not a word of judgment – and it has nothing to do with preserving the status quo.

·    + The one thing God has spoken is this: the loving-kindness of the Lord – God’s grace – lasts forever: It is patient; it is kind; it is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

·     + As an affirmation of this truth, I’d like you to join me by singing that old prayer/song, “Day by Day.” Even if you don’t yet have your own way into the reassurance and quiet rest of God’s love, let your heart trust that God’s love is real. Take a chance be a REAL fool for Christ.

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