An Honest Look

July 30, 2017

Series: July 2017

Category: Faith

Passage: Romans 8:26-31

Speaker: Rob McClellan

During a recent board meeting for Heartbeat, the organization that comes supports the work of Celtic Christian teacher John Philip Newell, a group of us took a little afternoon prayer walk, a mini-pilgrimage. The meeting was in Santa Fe, and while we had hoped to do a trail in the desert, time didn’t permit, so we just walked to a park that overlooked the city.  In the silence, we had our senses awakened to the sights and sounds of everyday life, vendors selling their wares, locals making their way to work, tourists looking around.  As we entered the park, we wound up a steep hill, passing plaques relaying the city’s history—it’s the oldest capital city in North America, did you know that?  At the top of the hill, we passed a giant cross, and made our way to a shady spot beneath a tree where we could share what had emerged for each of us on the walk.

          It’s amazing what will come up from within if you prayerfully set aside a little time to walk and listen.  It doesn’t take long.  I bet we didn’t walk 20 minutes.  Out of the group of about seven, three different people spoke of career changes they needed to make.  Others rejoiced at again walking with kindred spirits—many of us have made pilgrimages together in the past.  Then, one member, a Jew, said that when our walk culminated in passing a cross, the whole experience soured.  Ouch.

          Heartbeat is a group who is deeply involved in interfaith work, but has only now taken the step of becoming and interfaith board, which is quite a shift.  There is a lot of trust in the group, with some relationships spanning several years, so we were able to talk openly.  Some of the Christians acknowledged also feeling discomfort with the cross looming atop the city in a municipal park, but no doubt that discomfort carries a whole other level of meaning and intensity when you are not a Christian, and maybe particularly when you are a Jew.  To my Jewish friend, the cross is not a symbol of love, but rather a symbol of domination, of hegemony, even of intimidation. 

          There is a long history to support Jewish wariness of such symbols of Christianity.  I have been reading lately about the Reformation in light of this year’s 500th anniversary of Luther issuing his 95 theses.  Luther himself had horribly anti-Semitic things to say near the end of his life.  I like to think it was dementia setting in—he hadn’t spoken so sharply earlier in his life—but I, of course, have no proof of my theory.  Fifteen years after he had lobbied the Catholic Church for kinder treatment of the Jews, Luther advocated burning their schools and synagogues, and said rabbis should be threatened with death if they persisted in their teaching.[1]  How many of us were taught that history?  Had we better attended to it, we might have avoided what later happened in Luther’s own country.

          There’s a tendency to overlook what we don’t want to see about groups to which we belong, and so we gloss over painful realities of our histories.  Whether it is our religion, with realities such as the crusades, or our nation and its history of slavery, attempted destruction of native peoples and their culture—Christianity, incidentally, had a central role to play in each—there are episodes we would just as soon forget.  Many of us know this about our own families, as well, and we have things about which we simply do not speak. 

It is understandable to turn away. It is a defense mechanism.  Seeing is painful.  It is far more pleasant to concentrate on all the good, and there is plenty of good.  It was unpleasant when our Jewish friend told us Christians the cross we revere had soured the time we had spent together.  If we don’t face the unpleasant realities too, we squander an opportunity to learn from them.  Thankfully, one of the Christians in the group took that opportunity, moving toward what was uncomfortable rather than running away from it.  “I want to know more about your perspective,” he said, “because the cross is very important to me, and it means something totally different.”  What was valuable, and showed real trust in the relationship, is that he both expressed curiosity—he truly wanted to know—and shared openly about his own perspective.  Both are signs of respect to the other, just as the other had showed respect and trust in raising the issue in the first place.

We have built, or inherited, depending on how you look at it, a society in which vulnerability and reflectiveness, particularly about how we have benefitted from others’ suffering, is not rewarded. Thinking about this theme, I spent some time recently looking at the work of public relations firms around damage control.  Here’s what I found recommended for a sample case study of a hypothetical oil spill off California:  Work “to convince the public,” the firm advised, “that the oil company is working in the best interest of the public and environment, as opposed to being a self-serving company only concerned with company profits.  This might include a series of commercials showing company employees and officers actively cleaning up the oil spill and saving local wildlife.”[2]  Whether or not the company was actually working in the best interest of the public or environment, or appropriately cleaning up the spill, was totally absent from the discussion.  This is to be expected, because that’s not the job of a PR firm.  This is precisely the point:  slice up the responsibilities so much and eventually no one has to be ultimately responsible.  It’s a system that serves an illusion of wellbeing rather than the reality of it.

Did you know that sometimes even the way we read the Bible functions to serve an illusion, therefore missing an opportunity for us to have an honest look and the chance to learn? Take Jacob and Esau.  Last week, we heard about Jacob stealing his older brother Esau’s birthright.  This week, we heard about how Jacob, in turn, was tricked into marrying a woman he did not want, Leah, after waiting seven years for her sister, Rachel.  Jacob waits another seven years for Rachel.  We tend to overlook the obvious faults of the figures involved and conclude this was all the work of a perfect puppet-master God, who seems to approve of the actions of the figures in the story.  If that is so, however, and everyone was just playing their part, what does it say about God, that Esau, who lost his birthright, and Leah, who was given in marriage to someone who did not want her, are just necessary casualties?  Even the somewhat unsympathetic Jacob receives a pretty stiff penalty for a crime he committed likely as a minor.  As for Rachel, what choice does she have in the matter, as her father makes decisions for her as was the case with women of the day? 

More importantly, what is to be learned from that interpretation?   That God is in charge and our actions don’t matter?  Or, could it be that in the brokenness of these figures we can see our own capacity for coveting and taking what is not ours, like Jacob, or for not valuing the true gift given us, like Esau?  The story is filled with tricks, performed by people trying to get ahead, Jacob, and by people trying to provide the best they can for their children, Laban, and in it we are invited to wrestle with when such trickery is justified.  Yes, God is in charge, but perhaps in the sense that God is able to work goodness in, out, and through the imperfect and the unhealed. 

The Bible, at its best, is an honest look at life, and the life of faith is, at its best, an honest look as well, for looking honestly creates the opening through which a truer way to be may enter in. Trying to maintain the illusion of perfection guarantees only that we will never learn, never grow, never evolve.  Our culture eschews failing or weakness, and so we try and hide it with every cloak in our closet, even to ourselves, and yet that only impedes our growth.  The Apostle Paul says it is precisely in our weakness that the Spirit of God most helps us.  Through an honest look at ourselves and our groups we find God, and even when what we find is too hard to speak of, “that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26).  The point here is not to make anyone feel bad.  We are only following what we have been taught, that shortcoming or failure will bring punishment, but remember what Paul says of Christ here.  “Who is to condemn?” he asks rhetorically, “It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who intercedes for us” (8:34).  The only one in a position to condemn us, to truly condemn us, is Christ, and Christ not only does not condemn, Christ intercedes on our behalf.  We not only have nothing to lose by taking an honest look at who we have been, or where or who we come from, we have everything to gain, even new life.

Charles is an episcopal priest who told me what taking an honest look at his calling did for him. One day a woman, Tonja, came into his church in Colorado, having read his blog.  Charles writes regularly about Celtic spirituality, a blessing-centered, non-hierarchical, orientation to faith that recognizes the sacredness in all things, and which stands in stark contrast to what we so often see in our religion and others.  Tonja visited Ireland and Scotland regularly and was a deeply spiritual woman.  She and Charles developed a friendship during which they met regularly for lunch at her essential oils shop.  Tonja said to him, “I’m Celtic, but not entirely Christian.”  Over time, Charles acknowledged his own struggles.  The church, he once described, “was a lot of pomp, and not much circumstance.”  For him it had become vapid, caught up in appearances, and out of touch with reality, the needs of the real world. 

As part of what became their ritual of being together, Tonja would put some essential oil on Charles each time they were together without telling him what scent it was. You see, Charles had been in an accident two years before that left him with no sense of smell in the accident.  In order to find out the scent, he would have to go back to the church and have someone else tell him.  It became a game of sorts.

At one point, Charles decided to travel for a weeklong retreat with Philip Newell at Iona, a small island off the coast of Scotland. Mid-week, there is always take a day-long pilgrimage.  At one point, the group stops along the coast line where everyone is to cast a stone into the ocean, releasing a burden from one’s life, and then select a stone of new beginnings.  As Charles did, he let go of the church he knew he needed to leave, not because he wanted to abandon his walk with God, but because he wanted to take the next step.  Leaving the shore, quite emotional, Charles looked up and there, coming down the path, a world away from Colorado, was Tonja.  He wept as they embraced, and that’s when Tonja took a finger and wiped behind her ear.  She was borrowing some of the essential oil she was wearing, and she rubbed his face with it. 

Friends, God will go to the ends of the earth to find us when we are ready to look honestly at our lives.

When Charles told this story, I interrupted him and asked what essence the oil was. He paused, “Rose oil,” he said, “my favorite.”  I don’t know how he could have a favorite since he doesn’t have a sense of smell.  Later it hit me, Rose is associated with Mary the mother of Jesus.  It’s also a symbol of the crucifixion, maybe a better symbol than the cross.  Charles has now given his life to serving the homeless in New Mexico and working to advance the Celtic vision of Heartbeat in the world.  He is happy and more alive, and I would argue more faithful to the Christ he always sought to serve and now sees even more clearly.  This is the model of death and resurrection that Jesus gives us, of opening up in order to be lifted up.  Perhaps he borrowed it from the flowers.  It can come for each of us, and for all of us, whenever we are ready for an honest look.  Amen.