Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Reflections on the Journey: A Prologue

Every few years or so, usually when I move, I find an old photocopied document entitled “Reflections on the Journey.” It is about ten pages long, stapled at the top left corner and now has a water stain on the front cover from resting on the top of a shelf underneath an air conditioning line that was prone to freeze up and then melt. It was produced in 1992 by the people of my home parish, St. Mary’s Anglican Church in Richmond Hill, as part of their Lenten journey in that year. Parishioners were invited to write and share reflections on how God had moved in their lives.

I have kept this little document since then and whenever it pops up I peruse it for a few moments, reading over some of the selections. These moments are usually filled with the requisite nostalgia as I see the names of many who have meant and continue to mean much to me on my own faith journey. The nostalgia deepens when I think of those who are now in heaven. The sentimentality of the nostalgia gives way, however, to a profound sense of gratefulness and thanksgiving when I begin to read the substance of those reflections. Some of the stories are quite simple, while others are deeply personal. All of them, though, bear witness to a profound reality, which is the presence of God in the life of the people of God. While the collection contains the thoughts of priests and theology students, it also contains the reflections of a broad selection of the whole people of God. Some of these people were deeply involved in the life of the parish when I was a young man, and while some of them articulately expressed their faith quite regularly, there are others for whom this must have been an exercise in vulnerability. It can be very difficult to talk about our faith, not because it is not important to us, but because it is very important to us. Our faith journey is at once about the most interior part of our lives and the same time about how we relate to the world. It shapes our identity personally and politically (I mean the latter in the true sense of our participation in the “polis” or society). I think that most of us are afraid that if we stumble in articulating our faith journey, not only do we feel that we have “let down the side”, but that maybe something core to our being has been unmasked as a fraud. Often, we have an inner confidence based on some experience of the divine, and yet we are afraid that if we articulate that experience, someone will assault it, and as a result assault us at our deepest level. Thus, many Christians buy into the modern notion that our religion should be a private thing and not for public consumption.

What occurs to me, though, as I re-read that old St. Mary’s booklet, is how much my faith journey is strengthened by hearing the stories of the faith journeys of other Christians, especially those who were people that were formative in my life as a young man. I don’t look upon these people as somehow crazy or deranged (as I am sure many of them felt they would be taken as the put pen to paper to share their stories), rather I am heartened and my own faith is enlivened. I think this is probably the reason why Christianity is a religion that revels in telling the stories of saints. The lives of our spiritual mothers and fathers are a testimony that we are not alone, much less victims of some sort of mass delusion, as we walk this pilgrimage of faith. And of course, although it might not seem the case as we read the stories of the great saints, all saints are flawed people. Indeed, most saints really are ordinary people. It is the presence of God in their lives, and in ours, which makes us all extraordinary.

The courage of those men and women in 1992 to share a small piece of their faith journey continues to resonate and inspire. Their risk of vulnerability has become to us a gift. As a priest, I am asked from time-to-time by outsiders the question that so few people in the church ever ask. “How did you know you wanted to be a priest?” Or, “When did you ‘get the call?’” I am sure other clergy have heard these questions. These are honest questions posed by people who are asking us to be vulnerable with our story. And even for a priest that is hard. It is hard because most of us never had that ‘lightning bolt’ moment. More importantly, it is hard because it is difficult for us to be vulnerable with our stories, too. The larger question for me, though, has always been less about being called to be a priest and more about sensing and believing in the presence of God in Christ in my life. Perhaps there are some stories there to share; stories that involve people in my life carrying the light of Christ, that illumined my path at key moments along my journey. To that end, in future posts I will endeavour to stir up the courage to share some of those moments, in the way that those courageous St. Mary’s parishioners did those many years ago, in the hope that it will begin a process of storytelling for all of us that holds before us the reality of God in our midst. I would love to hear your stories, too.

c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

On Obedience - Can an Outdated Metaphor Still Hold Meaning?

The opportunity to preach at the Holy Eucharist at the Convent of the Sisters of St. John the Divine this past Tuesday gave me the chance to reflect on whether two difficult passages of Scripture that use slavery as a metaphor for obedience (Titus 2:1-14, Luke 17:7-10) can still hold meaning for us today. What follows is that reflection.

“Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect.”
-Titus 2:9

“We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”
-Luke 17:10

It needs be said at the outset that both the passages from Titus and Luke offer words about slavery that rightly disturb our modern ears. In most cases, our lectionaries skillfully excise such passages that might tempt us to justify slavery on account of the biblical text. Yet, somehow today, a simple Tuesday in ordinary time, two of these passages creep in and beg our attention. Perhaps this is a good thing as it reminds us that there are difficult passages of Scripture with which we must wrestle, lest we fall into the error of holding to a “canon within a canon” of Scripture. Thus, we must ask ourselves what we might learn from such texts that grate against our notions of justice, equality and human rights.

It should thus be said that the use of the metaphor of slavery is, of course, time sensitive. The metaphor, as it was used in the days of Jesus and St. Paul, is not a metaphor that appeals to us any longer; yet, as with any metaphor it is not the sign, but the thing signified by the sign that is intended as the focus of our attention. The thing signified in this case, is the virtue of obedience. The use of the slave metaphor is only a tool, or a means, to set before us the matter of obedience. We might substitute the metaphor, or indeed, even rewrite the parable in Luke in terms of employee and employer, or soldier and officer, or perhaps even parent and child, or perhaps even members of religious orders and their superiors, or priests and their bishops, to understand the meaning of these texts in our contemporary context. Obedience remains very much an important aspect of our existence. We seem to live under the illusion today that in our egalitarian and democratic society we do not have legitimate hierarchies of obedience, but they abound, and can be found without too difficult a glance.

It seems to me, then, that the word being proclaimed to us today is that we should not necessarily eschew relations of obedience simply because they make our egalitarian sensibilities a bit queasy. Let us be aware that relationships of obedience often arise out of competencies. For example, I am perfectly willing to be obedient to the instruction of the gas man who fixed my gas leak last week as I have no competency in the area of gas fitting. I am willing to be obedient to the teacher who is helping me to hone my skills as a student because I know that she has expertise and skill that I do not have, and yet hope to learn. The manager who has the whole picture of a workplace in mind, and also holds the confidences of various delicate human resources problems, is to be followed even when some decisions seem to make no sense. Why? Because certain people, like managers, have the burden of responsibility of holding pieces of the picture in tandem that we are not privileged to know, or indeed, have no business knowing. I am also willing (mostly) to obey the laws of the road as I drive, for the safety of all who use the roads. And I am willing to obey the laws of the land in order that we might know civil order and just governance. In the body politic, obedience is in important part of social order. This is true in the world and it is true in the Church. It need not be a tyrannical sort of thing.

When I work with those preparing for baptism and we arrive at the vow “Do you promise to obey Jesus as Lord?” this word “obey” creates considerable difficulties. Will I love Jesus? Will I follow Jesus? Will I turn to Jesus? Yes to all of the above, but to obey? We did take that word out of the marriage liturgy after all, didn’t we? Obedience causes us problems. And yet, as illustrated there are cases where we obey those in authority and the rules of society without a second thought. Why do we balk at obedience to the one who created us and love us with more depth and passion than any human love can know? Why do we have a problem with obedience to the will of God? I wonder if it is because we still, somewhere in the depths of our being, harbor unhealthy images of an angry God – God the angry parent; or God the King who punishes the seditious rebel. But is this the God we proclaim? I do not believe it is the God whereof Luke speaks, the God who has compassion for the broken, the wounded and the sinner. Nor is it the God of whom St. Paul writes to Titus, who in Christ Jesus “appeared bringing salvation to all!” Yes, God is our Judge, but oh, he is a merciful judge who longs to draw even the most rebellious of his creatures into his loving embrace and reconciling arms which were outstretched on the cross for just such a purpose. Perhaps one of my favourite quotations from that most judicious of Anglican divines, Richard Hooker, will illustrate the point and bring it home, “Be of good comfort, we have to do with a merciful God, ready to make the best of that little which we hold well, and not with a captious sophister, which gathereth the worst out of everything in which we err… the bowels of the mercy of God are larger.” Who would not offer obedience to such a merciful and loving God?

c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves