|Moses wonders what he has gotten himself into, and if there is a return policy on stone tablets.|
Today marks my entrance into the "Moses year": 40 years of journeying through the wilderness that is human existence. Although I can quickly count a dozen things I really should be doing instead of this, I think I would be remiss to let this day pass without some written reflection.
It's funny how we arbitrarily choose time periods to be significant. It takes roughly 365 days for our little sphere to orbit our medium sized star. Every 365 days or so, we make a big deal about our "birth day". But that's arbitrary. Why not every 100 days? Or every 42 days? Or heck, base it on the orbit of the moon instead. But a full cycle around our sun feels whole and complete to us. So we celebrate our birth once every orbit.
And then there are "really" special birthdays. Sometimes these important birthdays are associated with developmental milestones. Thirteen-- the first birthday after "childhood"-- is important because most humans are neck deep in puberty and that awkward in-between period between childhood and adulthood we call adolescence. But sometimes these special days are associated with random artifacts of our legal system, such as the rights and responsibilities legally granted at age 18 and 21 in our culture. But most often our important birthdays have something to do with the fact that most of us are born with ten phalanges on our hands, and thus we equate ten with completeness. Ten Commandments. Base 10 number system. Birthdays in increments of 10: 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60.
And then, out of all these special birthdays, we tend to assign pre-eminent status to "40". I'm sure there are tons of reasons for this. It is roughly the middle of most human lifespans at this time in human evolution. Particularly it is the middle of fully conscious adult existence. Most of us don't really remember much of early childhood. So 40 functions as a nice "apex" of adult consciousness, before a long slide downhill to oblivion. I jest. The downhill coast is always the most fun!
But 40 is also significant in the Biblical tradition that I find myself neck deep in every day. Forty days of the flood's destruction, before it started to recede so Noah and his family could build again (with all the backbreaking labor that entailed). Forty years of wandering with Moses in the wilderness before the Israelites could inherit their Promised Land (with all the war and bloodshed that entailed). Forty days of temptation and privation in the desert before Jesus could begin his public ministry of healing and teaching (with the suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection that entailed).
So 40 seems to be quite the mixed bag. A plateau of achievement which implies a kind of "incomplete completion". A moment to gasp a breath of brief satisfaction before beginning the hard work of the second half. A time to pause and reflect on how far you have come, and how much you have overcome, and to realize how very world weary you are, before diving back into the fray again.
So, where have I come in the last 40 years?
Most people would want a priest to mention God first in a list like this. They would want me to put God first. But in all honesty, I think one's experience of God is defined largely by the social web of interlocking relationships that God places us in. So I would prefer to get to God later after exploring the concentric circles and webs of relationality through which I find God, and God finds me.
And if I am honest, what defines me most of all is my family. I am incredibly blessed to have married my best friend and someone who understands me better than myself (on most days). Kim works harder than me, cares more than me, is a better parent than me, and a better friend too. Not to mention better with money. She laughs at my jokes, whether sappy, snarky, jaded or joyful. My relationship with her defines most of the rest of my life. If we are having a good day, the rest of my world is rose tinted. And if we are having a bad day, everything is bleak and dark. Kim's natural tendencies tend to offset mine in spectacularly awesome ways. Where I brood and ponder and write long essays that no one will read, she embodies pragmatic compassion, and challenges me to get up and DO something about it all. And did I mention that she is not only beautiful, but she also makes our home a beautiful place to live? I could not imagine life without her. At least not a life as beautiful as mine is now.
Then there are our three children: These bundles of mystery that depend on us for everything, but less and less every day, in that never ending process of union and differentiation that is parenthood. Being a parent is the single most important spiritual experience in my life, and the nuance with which I understand life in general, and the divine-human relationship in particular, has been inexorably transformed by the ongoing encounter with my children. Adapting and manifesting my love for each of my children's unique personalities and developmental level-- in my inadequate, imperfect and incomplete way-- has taught me so much about how God loves us that I can scarcely put it into words without sounding horribly cliché.
This family experience is embedded in a wider web of relationships. We have wonderfully supportive-- if somewhat idiosyncratic and culturally conservative-- sets of parents (i.e. our children's grandparents). Each demonstrates love in different ways. Each accepts and encourages us in their own way. While neither we, nor our parents, are perfect, our parental relationships are not plagued by the kind of alienation, shame, and guilt that so many experience. We have good relationships with step-siblings and half-siblings, along with their spouses and kids. We can all stand to be in the same room with each other for extended periods of time. And that is no small feat.
On top of that, we have some very good friendships. Kim's friendships tend to be deeper, longer lasting, and more geographically enduring than mine. I tend to move and loose contact. She tends to move and stay in touch. She tends to have a few deep friendships that last a very long time. I tend to cultivate a very wide net of friendships-- generally connected with my profession-- which I do not tend to be very intimate with.
This is not to say I am not "deep" with my friends. As a matter of course, I gravitate toward people who think about complex and deep issues-- philosophy, theology, ethics, religion, aesthetics, psychology, etc. And I talk about these deep, complex issues all the time, both professionally (because I need to as part of my job) and personally (because I really enjoy these issues). But honestly, I don't very often let anyone except Kim inside me to know how I am feeling, or what I am wrestling with, on the inside. On the whole I tend to be a lot better at hearing other people's hurts and helping them through life's difficulties that I am at actually sharing my own struggles or admitting to my own pain.
All of these webs of relationality are in turn connected with my profession. I am an Episcopal priest. I did not grow up desiring this. Heck, I did not even see it as a possibility for most of my life. The fact that I am clergy still strikes me with surprise most days. Becoming an Episcopal priest was a six year long process, that had many dimensions to it. The three main dimensions were: (a) The experience of ministry with families in local churches; (b) The experience of graduate education in Seminary; and (c) the experience of navigating the institutional demands of the ordination process at the Diocesan level.
Now, financially, I had to work through seminary, so (a) and (b) were always fused together in interesting ways. And to be honest, despite the stress of balancing full time ministry work, full time school, and full time parenthood, I found it an incredible experience. It was immersive and interesting and challenging and even fun. In 40 years, I have been to 3 undergraduate schools-- Air Force Academy, Austin College, and Texas A&M-- as well as 3 graduate schools-- for Social Work, for Counseling, and for Seminary. It was thrilling to finally FINISH a graduate program, and to do it with excellence. It was thrilling to do this while seeing people's lives changed at the local parishes where I worked first as a youth pastor, then as a college chaplain.
However, with that said, I found (c), the experience of 6 years in the Diocesan ordination process, to be the single most frustrating, depressing, and discouraging experience of my life. I would not recommend ordination to anyone, if that is what ordination is. This is not a condemnation of the Diocese I serve in now-- West Texas-- nor of any of the individual parishes I have ever served at in any Diocese. In fact, it is not even a condemnation of most of the individual people involved in my ordination in my original Diocese. A great many of those people are doing their best to follow Christ, and have the best intentions. But there is something sick and warped about the system as whole. It does things to the people that run it. And it does even more to those who go through it.
And in saying that, I know several people who experienced a longer and more conflicted ordination process than I did. I don't know how they made it and kept faith, honestly. I often compare it to 6 years of being a pledge in a fraternity. Although fraternities seem to be generally more affirming and caring than the ordination process, if my experience as a college chaplain is indicative. For several years after ordination I wondered if I would walk away from the priesthood and the church altogether. And while I still (obviously!) have hurt and resentment to work through from the ordination process, I think I am on the other side of desiring to leave the priesthood and the church.
Now I exercise my priestly ministry in the most challenging and interesting job I have ever had: As a chaplain, religion teacher, administrator, pastoral caregiver, and residential life staffer for an Episcopal school with nearly 500 students grades 6-12, and around 100 staff and their families. This job is amazing, and incredibly busy, and taxing, and rewarding, and crazy-making, and sanity-giving all at the same time.
I get challenged to preach Jesus in the midst of a diverse community that includes people from every major American faith tradition, and no faith at all. My colleagues are-- without many exceptions-- people who care for students, who are expert in their fields, and who are interesting and intelligent. I get to exercise my gifts of preaching, teaching, liturgy creation, creative problem solving, pastoral counseling, creative thinking, and humor on a daily basis. And every day is a weird mix of knowing exactly what to expect-- 7 periods, 45 minutes each, highly scheduled-- while at the same time never knowing what to expect. What exact issues and challenges will fill those seven periods and carry on after school on any given day? Your guess is as good as mine! It's 60-90 hours of craziness a week and it gives me life and energizes me, even as it exhausts me.
Now that I have laid out this minimal understanding of the web of relationships and experiences I am embedded in, I think I can finally talk about where God is in the midst of all of this. God is, in a word, the Fabric that holds all of this together and gives it energy. God is the Reason and the Meaning lurking behind, within, and underneath all of these other activities and responsibilities.
I don't want to go into a full theology here. If you want that, please scroll through the million words of blogging I have put online since 2005. But I do want to hit on the high points of how my experience of the God revealed in Jesus Christ has evolved and changed since conversion.
When I was first converted to Christ in 1992, I think I primarily experienced God AS the Bible. Make no mistake: I prayed to Jesus, and asked Jesus to become real to me. And Jesus did. But if I am fully honest, at that stage, Jesus was primarily experienced through the text of Scripture. So, for the first 2-3 years of my faith, I experienced God textually above all else. I soaked in the maxims and teachings of the Bible. Often I did this in a crassly literalist fashion, thinking that Conservative American Evangelicalism was the only way to interpret Scripture. And I supplemented this Biblical understanding with strong theologically conservative apologetic arguments. And I learned Greek and read countless commentaries to develop a comprehensive "Biblical worldview". It was a primarily cognitive spirituality, focused on having a coherent worldview that synthesized Scripture into a seamless whole.
I know this was at times Bibliolatry: Raising God's Book above Godself. Yet, I think this may have been a necessary developmental stage for me. The Biblical Jesus formed a necessary foundation for the rest of my development in Christ. It was at this time that I learned the Biblical basis for everything else I have learned since then. But, over the course of a couple of years, I also realized that I loved the Bible and the apologetic arguments that "proved" Jesus MORE than I actually loved Jesus Himself. And I told Jesus as much. And Jesus, in turn, honored that honesty by allowing me a breadth of experience that would open me up to a much bigger picture of what Jesus is up to in the world.
I experienced Jesus in a new way through becoming a Social Worker who dealt with children who had been abused and thrown away by their families and society at large. I also experienced the healing and compassion of Jesus in my own failed first marriage. Through the intense experience of my own hurt and guilt, Jesus was made present in a real and powerful way. And after the experience of the failure of divorce, I never could go back to the project of building a "flawless" Biblical worldview with the same passion. I realized there was no system that could be devised that could ensure that we could be insulated from the hardships and heartbreaks of life.
And it was around this time that I also experienced the "charismatic Christ", in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. As I needed healing, I found myself learning to pray for the healing of others. I discovered ecstatic experiences, the ever present desire of the Spirit to draw near to our hearts, and profound experiences of the guidance of God. I found the ability to "let go and let God". And while I now realize this can be a way of avoiding responsibility for one's life and decisions, it can also be a powerful experience of surrender, allowing God to do what you cannot.
This puts me at about 25 years old. I was still brash and cocky and at times insufferable. I don't really think I was an adult until around 25 or 26. I have since found out that, in terms of neurological development, the pre-frontal cortex of men is not done "baking" until around age 23-25. Women, on the other hand, are usually done "baking" around 18-21. So, it is somewhat fair to say that young men are idiots until their mid-20's. And I hold myself up as the foremost example.
At age 25, I married Kim, my high school sweet heart (best decision I have ever made). A year later-- in the year 2000-- I left my career as Social Worker after 6 1/2 years. And I began what became a career in the Episcopal Church: First as a youth pastor, then a college chaplain, and now as a priest. Over that time, and 3 kids later, my experience of Jesus has gone through many phases of development and evolution. I began to see Jesus at work in the historical structures of the Church-- in apostolic succession and the trajectory of Church history-- from the first centuries until now. I embraced this historic Jesus by being confirmed in the Episcopal Church in 2000, so that I could take my place in the historic continuity of what he had been doing from the apostles until now.
I began to see Jesus at work in the sacraments of the Church, incorporating people into the Christ-life through faith expressed in ritual actions, whereby God meets humanity where they are at, using elements such as hands and water and wine and bread and oil. This sacramental Jesus is known and experienced anytime two or more gather in his Name, to perform worship and ritual in remembrance of Him.
I also saw Christ at work in the struggle for liberation, as God sided with the poor and oppressed to bring about structural changes in society that ensure all of God's children are treated with the dignity they deserve. Through the eyes of the Jesus of Liberation, I began to see how the Church often colludes with the powers and rulers of the world to enforce a status quo that oppresses and demeans those who find themselves on the underside of social power: Whether that is laborers in the developing world being used by the consumer system, immigrants in nationalist societies, women in patriarchal systems, or the "sexually other" in traditional societies.
And in seeing the inside of the ugliness of the Church-- how the Church demeans and discourages its own members-- I began to see the deconstructive Christ. I saw how Jesus is on the side of those crucified by religion because he was crucified by religion. I saw how Jesus is still tortured and killed by the very people who most vocally and proudly proclaim to stand for Christ. And in this process I saw how sometimes being faithful to Christ requires deconstructing the texts and structures of Religion in order to create space for the Risen Christ to be felt by the outcast and rejected.
This led me to see the liberal Christ: The Jesus who calls us to the widest possible interpretation of the texts and traditions of the faith, to reach out to the most people, and include the most within the scope of God's Love. This liberal Jesus is found anywhere we see God's Love at work. For as 1John says: All who love are born of God and know God. Those who do not love do not know God, because God is Love. This liberal, all-embracing Love of God desires that everyone should be made whole by embodying the character of Christ, and integrating the virtues of the Spirit: Love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faith, humility, self-control, and wisdom (cf. Galatians 5.22-23). These virtues are found in the best people of all the cultures and religions of the world. They bear Christ's image even if they have never heard of Jesus, or perhaps even wrongly reject Jesus. And it is this liberal Jesus who desires to heal everyone, and draw us all to a life of virtue, regardless of what we know and believe.
This liberal Jesus led me to the scientific Jesus: The Jesus who is the embodiment of the Divine Logos in human form (cf. John 1.1-18). This Logos holds together the universe and gives everything form and structure and intelligibility. It is because the Divine Logos is the "Ground of Being" that we live in the kind of universe that can be understood, and studied, and described, and predicted. Thus, if we understood the symbolic and poetic Creation texts of the Bible for what they are-- symbols and poetry connoting the Meaning of Reality-- we find that the Bible has nothing to fear from modern science (neither does modern science from a literary understanding of the Bible). Scripture reveals why God made us. Science reveals how God made us and how Reality works. Both Science and Scripture, interpreted rightly, complement each other and lead to a deeper, more holistic understanding of the world God has made.
And this has led me to see the evolutionary Jesus: The Jesus who recapitulated all of human history by entering into the womb, going through all the phases of fetal development, and then growing through all the stages of human life from childhood to adulthood. And this God revealed in Jesus journeys with the entire Creation as it evolves and develops and changes-- just as a Parent journeys with her or his children through all their phases of development, developmental milestones, and developmental setbacks. Evolution is merely the cosmic dimension of what each individual goes through: A painful yet joyful process of development and growth over time, as we grow into all the fullness of God.
And that is where I am at today. On my 40th birthday. That is the God who walks with me. The God I see in Jesus. I meet in Jesus. I embrace in Jesus.
I welcome the Biblical Jesus, the healing Jesus, the charismatic Jesus, the historical Jesus, the sacramental Jesus, the liberating Jesus, the deconstructive Jesus, the liberal Jesus, the scientific Jesus, and the evolutionary Jesus. For these are not separate Jesuses (Jesi?). They are all facets of the same Jesus. They are all expressions of the Logos who became embodied in the human life of a Carpenter 2000 years ago. The God who is embodied in him is the same God who holds together the entire Universe. And I can't help but quote one of my favorite Pauline Scriptures here:
"Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross." [Colossians 1.15-20]
And this God is the Fabric of my reality, the One who holds everything in the cosmos together. This God is the Operating System that the Universe runs on. This God is the very Life Breath that sustains me whether I am joyful or sad, in pain or in pleasure, over worked or under stimulated, doing well or barely doing anything, hopeless or hopeful.
At this point, it is probably best to express this in prayer. So, if you will indulge me:
Thank you Jesus for getting me to my 40th birthday! I literally could not have done it without you (in you! through you! by you!). I look with hope to the future, while at the same time being a bit scared. I have no idea what you have in mind. I don't know in what ways my soul will be crushed, and in what ways my spirit will soar. I don't even know how much time I have. I fully understand that I have no way of predicting or controlling what will come. But I know you will be there with me, to go through all I go through. I welcome life with you, and the people you have woven my life together with. Please strengthen and encourage, heal and restore, enable and empower us to meet the challenges of this life with grace and peace and love in all things. And at the end of our days, gather us together with you, and raise us to that new life that never ends. Amen.