Reaching Out ad interim

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Genesis 12: 1-4a

Psalm 121

John 3: 1-17

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Sunday’s Palms are Wednesday’s ashes as another Lent begins;

thus we kneel before our Maker in contrition for our sins.

We have marred baptismal pledges, in rebellion, gone astray;

now, returning, seek forgiveness; grant us pardon, Lord, this day!

We have failed to love our neighbors, their offences to forgive,

have not listened to their troubles, nor have cared just how they live;

we are jealous, proud, impatient, loving overmuch our things;

may the yielding of our failings be our Lenten offerings.

We are hasty to judge others, blind to proof of human need;

and our lack of understanding demonstrates our inner greed;

we have wasted earth’s resources; want and suffering we’ve ignored;

come and cleanse us, then restore us; make new hearts within us, Lord!

-Rae E. Whitney, 1982

This Lent, as every Lent, and truly all our days, we undertake the work of turning and returning to God. We strive to live our lives reflecting the righteousness God graciously bestows upon us through the sacrifice of Godself in Jesus. For us, unlike for God, righteous action is never pure or absolute. Rather, our actions are situated, contextual, relational, and so reflected as if through a glass, dimly.

In this year’s cycle of the lectionary, our Gospel readings come primarily from Matthew. As we have been exploring over the past couple of months, in conversation with Albert Schweitzer and Amos Wilder, the ethic offered particularly in the synoptic gospels, that is, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, is an interim ethic, an ethic for a time between times, an ethic for an already but not yet eschatology that eagerly anticipates the immanent return of Jesus next week, tomorrow, or perhaps even this very afternoon. Today, however, we interrupt your regularly scheduled Matthean programming for a Johannine advertisement. As Dean Hill has so carefully taught us over the past decade of his ministry here at Marsh Chapel, the Gospel of John is situated and contextualized in a community struggling to cope with their disappointment that Jesus had not, and for us, indeed, has not, returned with anything like the immanent expectations of his earliest followers.

And so, here in the third chapter, we find Jesus teaching Nicodemus, who is struggling to understand how to live a spiritual life in the way of Jesus. He desires the kingdom of God, but is desperately confused as to how to get there, or even what experiencing the kingdom of God might really mean. Jesus’ answers are not terribly clarifying to him, as Nicodemus in a sense represents the synoptic expectation of Jesus’ immanent return and John’s community’s disappointment and struggle to adapt to a new reality.

Here, then, in John, is not the abolishment of the interim but rather a shift of understanding to a different sort of interim, an interim demarcated not so much temporally as socially. The Johannine community is living in the interim between the synagogue and the church. This is not an interim of time but an interim of values, of ideas, of policies, of programs. What is needed, then, is not an ethic for preparing for the end times but rather an ethic, or better yet a spirituality, of resistance to values, ideas, policies, and programs that undermine the kingdom of God we are being born into and that is being born in us. “You must be born from above,” and “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

We too are experiencing life ad interim. We too are being afflicted by values, ideas, policies, and programs that undermine the kingdom of God. We too, urgently, need to seek out resources for constructing an ethic and a spirituality of resistance to these demonic afflictions. “I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”

In this Lenten season we are invited to consider the wisdom of Henri Nouwen, Roman Catholic priest, pastoral theologian, teacher, pastor, spiritual guide. Saint Henri, I have found, provides timely and salient resources for resistance, an ethic and spirituality of resisting by reaching out, in a small book by that title. Deeply informed by the pastoral psychology of his day, Nouwen invites us to make three spiritual conversions that we might resist in a manner that is effective, sustainable, and lives out the values of the kingdom that we seek to replace with the demonic values of the interim moment.

First, Saint Henri invites us to convert our loneliness to solitude. Loneliness characterizes much of life in the interim, characterized as loneliness is by a sense of anxiety at having been excluded, shut out, cut off, denied, rejected, and abandoned. Anxiety leads to frustration leads to agitation. Loneliness is a state of desperate and yet seemingly unattainable desire for connection.

How on earth could we possibly be lonely, surrounded as we are, especially in the city, by so many people? Apparently, the real question is actually how can we not be lonely? Surgeon General Vivek Murthy regularly points out that the most serious health issue in the United States is neither cancer nor heart disease nor obesity but isolation. The Boston Globe Magazine, on Friday, ran the headline, and pushed it to its subscribers by email, “The biggest threat facing middle-age men isn’t smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness.” Dear friends, loneliness is real and it is decidedly not all in our heads but in our hearts and our bodies, our physiology.

Converting loneliness to solitude is thus an urgent public health issue. It entails first a turn inward to recognize that our overwhelming and anxious desire for outward connection is likely rooted in a lack of inward connection among the various parts of ourselves. We, you and I, each and every one of us, are not singular selves but a community of selves with various needs, desires, longings, aspirations, loves, fears, apprehensions, insights, and confusions. Solitude, then, is the cultivation of inner relationships among these parts of ourselves, it is a becoming present to our selves. Solitude generates a calm, centered, quiet, restful way of being in the world by arranging the voices of ourselves into a consonant harmony.

Cultivating solitude is not only good for our own health. After all how could we possibly expect to harmonize our marriages, our families, our friendships, our workplaces, or our communities if we are shouting dissonant juxtapositions of lonely anxiety? Indeed, solitude is the groundwork of resistance, as Nouwen points out, by in turn converting “fearful reactions into a loving response.” Demonic values, demonic ideas, demonic policies, and demonic programs will never be defeated by fear and anger. They can only be overcome by love. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (1 John 4: 18). The love that emerges from solitude is the groundwork of a creative response to the demons of our interim moment, and as Howard Thurman reminds us, “meaningful and creative experiences between peoples can be more compelling than all the ideas, concepts, faiths, fears, ideologies and prejudices that divide them.”

Second, Saint Henri invites us to convert our hostility to hospitality. In a very real sense, the movement from loneliness to solitude is a movement from inner hostility to inner hospitality, and so this second conversion is simply its outward expression. Of course, moving from loneliness to solitude is merely being hospitable to ourselves; oh, how the shift from inner to outward becomes exponentially more fraught! Even in 1975 Nouwen noted that, “Our society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion, always expecting an enemy to suddenly appear, intrude, and do harm.” Not only saint, but prophet, was Henri.

Boston College philosopher Richard Kearney is wont to point out that the distance between hostility and hospitality is really quite small, rooted, as both words are, in the Latin word hostis. Alas, over time, the demonic has driven a wedge between them, our growing fearfulness increasingly cutting off any inclination toward “the creation of a free and friendly space where we can reach out to strangers and invite them to become our friends.” Hostility is rooted not only in fear but in the need and desire to own and to control, whereas hospitality finds its grounding in freedom and so in service to the stranger.

Like solitude, hospitality is part of the groundwork of resistance. Hospitality, dear friends, is not merely a posture of receptivity toward strangers. Hospitality also involves confrontation. It is not hospitable to welcome a stranger into your house and then to leave. Hospitality means welcoming the stranger to freely be themselves in the presence of an other, of difference, of strangeness. “Confrontation results from the articulate presence, the presence within boundaries, of the host to the guest by which the host offers her- or himself as a point of orientation and a frame of reference” (239).

Now, dear friends, it would be easy to think, especially this week, in the wake of a second attempt at an executive order restricting immigration from certain Muslim-majority countries, that all of this talk of hospitality toward strangers should be a guidebook for welcoming refugees and immigrants. Indeed, we have much yet to learn about welcoming those who have been driven from their homes by violence in fear and anguish. We must learn to bless Abram that he may bless us, else we must surely be accursed by God.

But do not be fooled! Our need to convert hostility to hospitality is not primarily to the immigrant or to the refugee. It is to each other! To one another, to you and to I, to us, here, in this place, on this campus, in this city, and across this great nation. Resistance is not hospitality to demonic values, demonic ideas, demonic policies, and demonic programs. Resistance is hospitably receiving those whose choices, whose decisions, whose actions, whose votes enabled the demonic to take hold, and of confronting them in articulate presence by saying, “This is not who we are.”

Finally, Saint Henri invites us to convert our illusion to prayer. Perhaps particularly when suffering from frantic loneliness and fearful hostility, but even regardless, it is easy to become convinced that our value, our worth, is manifest in “the things we own, the people we know, the plans we have, and the successes we ‘collect’” (251). Nouwen refers to this misplaced conviction as the “illusion of immortality,” but we might better think of it as the illusion of materiality, the illusion that the things of this life are somehow directly transferable to eternity.

To convert such illusion to prayer is to recognize, to remember, to re-encounter the transcendent source, goal, and ground of our value, of our worth, of our dignity. In Lent we remember that we are dust, yes, but our dustiness is still in the image and likeness of God. Prayer, then, is the practice of recognition, the practice of remembrance, the practice of encounter with the true source, the true goal, the true ground of our value, and thus, our very being.

Prayer is the third element of our emerging ethic and spirituality of resistance because prayer is the language of community. Community is what is built when strangers encounter one another hospitably, honoring the harmonious solitude of each constituent member. In order for community to communicate, however, the medium of their communication must transcend any particular communicant. Communication must arise from what a community has in common, namely the source, the goal, and the ground of the value of the communicants individually and together.

Resistance is not possible alone. No one person, by themselves, lonely, hostile, and suffering under illusion, can make one bit of difference in the face of demonic values, demonic ideas, demonic policies, and demonic programs. Resistance requires community, it requires creativity and partnership, it requires fellowship to sustain it for the long haul. Resistance requires community, community requires communication, communication happens in language, and prayer is the language of community. Resistance, then, is impossible without prayer.

Dear friends, will you resist with me? This Lent, will you cultivate an ethic, a spirituality of resistance to the demonic values, the demonic ideas, the demonic policies, and the demonic programs of our interim moment? Will you resist by reaching out? Will you reach out to your selves to nurture and cultivate their disparate voices into a harmonious solitude? Will you reach out to the strangers you encounter and offer them a receptive and confrontational hospitality? Will you reach out to God, in whose image and likeness you are, that in community you may find partnership and strength for the journey?

In the conclusion to Reaching Out, Saint Henri prophetically notes that, “We are living in this short time, a time, indeed, full of sadness and sorrow. To live this short time in the spirit of Jesus Christ means to reach out from the midst of our pains and to let them be turned into joy by the love of the One who came within our reach. We do not have to deny or avoid our loneliness, our hostilities and illusions. To the contrary: When we have the courage to let these realities come to our full attention, understand them, and confess them, then they can slowly be converted into solitude, hospitality, and prayer” (282).

We are indeed living in this short time, an interim moment full of sadness and sorrow when values of love, freedom, courage, compassion, and justice have given way to hate, fear, cowardice, anger, and control. Resist! Reach out! Reach out to yourself. Reach out to one another. Reach out to God. Resist! Resist! Resist the demonic spirit of this interim moment by reaching out, and so be born from above that you may see the kingdom of God. Amen.

– Brother Lawrence A. Whitney, LC†, University Chaplain for Community Life

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