Belong to the longing

Writing in my journal this morning, I had a few questions: What/where are my longings? Can I feel them? Name them? Will I find them underneath and in between all the should-ings and the must-ings? Why pay attention to them?

Indeed. Why pay attention? For one thing, I can’t help it — it is in my nature, my DNA, my genes, my “nine-ness” (from the Enneagram, a dynamic personality system which describes nine distinct and fundamentally different patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting).

With regard to the Enneagram, as I understand the nature of a Nine, we are Mediators. We are hard-wired to pay attention — highly sensitive and tuned in to people and our surroundings. And what if that sensitivity is so occupied with outside stimuli that it cannot respond to any inner promptings? See, the outer drowns out the inner. Where does that leave me? Often too preoccupied to listen to the still small voice of the spirit. Not a good thing to be cut off from, I think.

As I read through The Essential Enneagram (a book we encountered in the RUAH program), it invited me to consider the following questions: How have all the people and things around me been pulling at and competing for my attention? How indecisive have I been? In what ways have I gone along with others’ agendas and plans? In what ways have I been sidetracked into focusing on secondary priorities or inessentials?

All this questioning leads me to wonder about finding and maintaining focus in a world chock-a-block full of distractions. What might be useful for finding one’s focus? And maintaining that focus once found? A tool, a discipline or a practice might be just the ticket here.

What can help me set my priorities straight? What already exists in our rich Christian tradition?

Lectio divina is an ancient monastic practice designed to be a “long, loving look at the real.” It works through four stages or steps: read, reflect, respond, and rest. Lectio becomes a container for awareness of inner movements and voices. That’s good, as far as it goes. But I need something more: action. Some outpouring of all that contained goodness.

Once these inner longings are heard clearly, then perhaps I will honor them through action. And action is surely required to build beloved community, which is where I long to belong.

Richard Rumble
September 2014

To be a Steward

What’s the deal with stewardship? It’s an interesting word. Steward. Sometimes, it’s a noun. Less often, it’s a verb. How does this ancient concept apply to lives lived in this millennium? As a concept, should it apply to me as I work through my discernment? How?

It’s an interesting idea. It involves action without ownership. In Bible stories things are given to a steward — tangible things, such as: a house, a vineyard, or, a sizeable sum of money. And with the tangible comes the intangible: responsibility, trust, and time. The master then departs, leaving the stewards to their own devices.

In the New Testament, one tale is sometimes referred to as the Parable of the Talents. It appears at the end of Jesus’s ministry as He heads to Jerusalem. In the 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel, the Stewards’ tale is sandwiched between a story of readiness (Ten Bridesmaids) and an account of Final Judgment (Sheep and Goats).

Talent is the start of the narrative. Today we take talent to mean a special natural ability or apptitude for achievement. Back then, it was a measure of weight — approx. 200 pounds in gold for the ancient Hebrews. (So, at a price of $1300 an ounce, a talent of gold today could be worth 4.16 million dollars — a sizeable chunk of change!). As he heads out of town, the big man calls in his stewards, doles out the talents, and then he vanishes for a while. Upon his unexpected return, he calls them in again — “Circle up! Tell me lads, what’s been happening around here?”

Accounts are rendered. Some of the reported returns are astounding (who wouldn’t love to see such growth in a retirement portfolio?). Affirmations abound — “Well done, good and faithful servant…but wait, there’s more!” Except for the guy who played it safe. He lost everything. Harsh treatment, right?

For years, every time I read the story, I fully identified with the risk-averse steward who buried his precious talent in the ground. But what if I could identify with the other stewards — what might life look like then?

How did those stewards achieve that return, I wonder?

First, they acted. They did something. They engaged. Second, I believe they bet it all. No holding back. And why should they? Those talents were on loan, never theirs to begin with, but, theirs to do with whatever they could. Stunning freedom. Immense possibility. If only one can see the largess of the Owner. He endows, then steps aside. And longs to see what we might make out of the abundance of His generosity.

Here’s hoping for good ideas and some courage to act.

Richard Rumble
Communications Director

Rabbit transit

It’s hard to find a really good way to celebrate a secular Easter.  The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ are not the stuff of simple and lightweight symbols. Easter transmits a complex message, transported through time through a sacrament of blood-wine and body-bread on an altar derived from a sacrificial cult.

The best the secular city can do is bunnies.  Bunnies and chickens and lilies and pansies and marigolds, chocolate treats and colored eggs.

Bunnies aren’t bad symbols for Springtime.  Every Spring is indeed a miracle, marvelous even though it is repeated annually throughout one’s lifetime and the lifetime of this planet.  Chicks and bunnies are part of that miracle.  Lilies too.

The thing about Easter, however, is that it is more than new birth.  It is new birth from death.  The usual Springtime narrative does not carry with it the dark tone of Good Friday, preceding the stunning unprecedented Easter morning.

Resurrection life has a special quality.  It is life after death.  That is to say, death has no more dominion over it.  The powers of death have done their worst. Resurrection life is unafraid, because it knows only the present and the future. It is more than the average bunny can handle.

Metropolitan Richmond needs resurrection life, nothing less.  There is a negativity in the region which surely rivals the atmosphere in Jerusalem under Roman occupation.  Controlled by Pharisees and an established cult, unable to claim their own destiny, the citizens of metropolitan Jerusalem sought separate and private solutions to the issues of life, awakening occasionally to some supposed scandal or another in the city center.

A tremendous passivity had arisen.  Nothing seemed to change.  Everyone had his or her position of limited security and was holding on to it as tightly as possible.  People felt it was necessary to protect themselves against one another.

There was tremendous hostility and despair under the surface – so much so that when the oppressive government, aided by the various churches, presented someone to be crucified for having blasphemed the current leadership’s claim of God’s blessing, there was great excitement at an execution.

A significant percentage of the population – those that could, those that had enough to be secure, those that were far enough away – stood by passively and watched one more crisis, blaming the participants for it while pretending that their lack of direct involvement was the same thing as moral purity.

But the entire metropolitan city was sinking, squandering its vision and its wealth in thousands of individual sagas of self-preservation while the true body, the commonwealth, sagged and slumped deeper and deeper in the indifferent climate of self-indulgence.  Jerusalem was destroyed thirty years after Jesus’ execution.

Was there some great evil buried underneath Jerusalem?  Had the hypocrisy of the culture finally overcome it?  The Torah had prescribed justice and a healthy society concerned with opportunity for all.  But the practices of the community had become more and more directed toward smaller and smaller centers of self-preservation.  Religion had become just one more franchise business, selling pigeons and making irrelevant demands on those whom it targeted as patrons.

Meanwhile, the unemployed and abandoned, the imprisoned and despairing increased in number, expressing in their outward situation the inward desolation of those who were fleeing the original vision of the patriarchs and prophets.  It was not just the practice of religion they were fleeing, — that had become irrelevant enough.  They were also fleeing the true God, the true values, and the true energy of the civilization.

When Jesus succeeded in getting their attention, they killed him.

Bunnies indeed.

It’s a gripping story, straight out of the websites and the blogs and the social media and the newspapers of today.  For real.

But the rest of the story is what we need to focus on.  Jesus returned in the spirit – maybe even a little while almost in the flesh – and the hope he represented, on the other side of death, was hope of a different sort.  It was the kind of hope that said that despair, negativity, oppression, and imprisonment are not ultimately victorious – that there is a spirit-life which can actually transform the most immobilized of people and communities.

Resurrection life is more than bunnies.  It is courage and change and possibility and hope and something beyond cynicism.  Richmond needs it bad – but not more than Powhatan, or Goochland, or Henrico, or Chesterfield, or Charles City, or New Kent, or Ashland.  Metropolitan Richmond’s people are tragically proud of their failure to work together, seemingly unrepentant in their trajectory to squander the new century, confirmed in their sense of futility over racial integration, unemployment, suburban sprawl, and one another’s irascibility.

We can believe in the power of the Resurrection – the power that claims we can do what is right and that God is leading us to a promised land.  Or we can believe resurrection power is just back then – that now it represents only memory, nonsense, futility, religious language, and the fond hopes of people who don’t know how things really are.  We can believe that the resurrection of Jesus is a church event.  Or we can believe it’s a spirit event for the metropolitan city and its 1.2 million people.  We can believe it means real hope and new life for all of us.  Or we can believe it means only a ticket to heaven for people who believe it when they die.

Some folks in Chesterfield-Henrico-Hanover-Charles City-Goochland-New Kent-Richmond-Powhatan are talking about a new rapid transit system for the metropolitan city to connect us all together in a way that will help us to function as one and make the blood of our common body begin to circulate again.  That’s resurrection thinking.  It’s not for sissies.  It’s not for bunnies.  It’s not rabbit transit.  It’s RVA Rapid Transit.

It takes believing in the resurrection, or something like that, to think that Metropolitan Richmond would ever want to do something that simple, that honorable, that basic, that smart, that inclusive, that economically dramatic, that common, that unracial, that just.

There’s no federal court to force us to do it.  No northern armies. No Roman Empire.  No religious authority.  Just Virginians deciding at last to create a great and healthy city and to give up on the powers of darkness.  The resurrection is like that.

B. P. Campbell, Pastoral Director

Open-source Christ

7 January 2013, Feast of the Epiphany

Matthew 2:1-12: Journey of the Magi

The Rev. B. P. Campbell, Richmond Hill, Richmond, Virginia

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:  ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

In the world of computers there is this thing called “Open-source software.”  As I understand it, and as it is described by the Cambridge University Dictionary, open-source software is software that is free to use.  Also, the original program can be changed by anyone.  That is, it is a gift of which you can make anything you want to make.

Tonight, as we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, I want to celebrate an open-source Christ, an open-source Messiah.  Because it seems clear to me that that is what the three kings – the three magi — found, and it is what Jesus is in our world.

Let me say, although it is very obvious, that we don’t know anything about whether these three magi existed, or who they were, or where they came from.  There are lots of traditions about them.  All we know is in these twelve verses from Matthew’s Gospel.  Storytellers have filled in the blank places, as storytellers are wont to do, for nearly two millennia.  But let me also say that the story of the three kings is true enough – that is to say, the story says something really true about Jesus, and the energy and spirit which Jesus liberated, and what his followers felt about him.

Anyway, we have no idea what these three kings were reading, — or smoking, for that matter.  We don’t know for sure what their religious background was, if any.  They may have been astrologers, they may have been Zoroastrians, they may have been Persians or Iranians.  All we know is that they saw a star in the West and believed that it indicated a King of the Jews was being born, and that they should come and worship him. 

We have no indication that they were Jews, but even if they were, there is no known Jewish story which says that a King of the Jews will be born when a certain star appears in the West.  We don’t know what they thought, or what dream or prophecy or speculation or scientific or political or economic study they were engaged in that led them to the conclusion which drew them across the desert on this journey.  We only know that the baby born, whose name they did not even know, drew their most complete attention, and, it appears, satisfied their deepest longing.

When they went home, what did they say?  Jesus hadn’t grown yet.  He hadn’t preached yet.  How did they pursue this conviction?  How did it get content for them?

I’m thinking that the baby was a kind of an open-source messiah to them.  They could make what they wanted of him.  Only the Holy Spirit would guide them into truth.  According to the story, these three wise men understood that the baby would engage their lives in three ways, and so they offered him gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

The open-source messiah received gold, he received frankincense, and he received myrrh.

1. The open-source messiah received gold.

Gold is material wealth.  It is what makes the world of commerce go around.  It is earthly power, governmental power.  It pays armies.  It builds temples.  It funds feasts.  It turns on the lights and buys the groceries.  Gold is human organization, human business, human life.  The magi gave it to him.

If they gave it to him, and if they were as committed as it appears, that was the beginning of the reconstruction of their own lives.

For when you have a purpose for your life, you rebuild it, or you build it differently.  You spend your time and your money in a different way.  Things have different meaning.  Things that used to mean a lot don’t matter at all, and things that you never imagined all of a sudden become very important.  You may even drop what you are doing and take a trip across the desert on a camel.

I don’t know if the three kings ever got ahold of any of Jesus’ teaching.  Maybe after this particular trip they at least took a look at some of the Hebrew scriptures.  If so, they may have used their lives and their gold to bring justice,  and to love mercy.  There were, after all, no instructions given them from the manger – just the conviction that this baby whom they had seen with his mother and father was worthy of worship and had something to do with the way they spent their gold.  Gold was the theme, but the working out of it was kind of open-source.  It was up to them. 

2. The open-source messiah received frankincense.

As I said, we don’t know who these three kings were, or where they came from, but when it came to what is important in human life, they hadn’t just gotten off the boat.  It wasn’t just gold.  The magi brought frankincense to this baby.  Acting in response to beliefs and philosophies that we don’t know anything about, they brought the loveliest incense, an incense of prayer and worship, sweetness and kindness.  They brought a gift of holiness and reverence with them and gave it to the baby whom they did not know.

It was an open-source gift to him, and to them – for we can assume, I think, that these three magi loved frankincense, and that it symbolized their own lives of prayer.  These were reflective, prayerful magi.  They were men – and I guess they were men – who had spent time in silence, seeing the truth and the one who was beyond the silence. They were people who had beseeched God as they understood God to sanctify their lives, to lift them up to his presence, to make their days valuable and enlist them in his service.  They had burned incense and lit candles in prayer for their own wives, children, neighbors, and leaders.  They had sought peace between nations, and knew that the world was under one God.

The prayer of these three magi was not directed by any source we know – it was open-source – they came up with their own prayers – but they believed that source and the source of this baby’s life and witness were one and the same.  In bringing him frankincense, they associated his prayer with their own, as they departed to go back to their own country.  He did not direct the prayer that led them forward, — this was a visit to an open source – unless there was a holy spirit which traveled with the frankincense and urged and surged within the prayer.

3. The open-source messiah received myrrh.

This is the most stunning of the gifts – the dark spice which is used to anoint for burial.  It tells of the deep, dark truths of the grave, of loss, of sickness, of despair – the truths of death-grounded resurrection life.  Only a person of hope can give the gift of myrrh to a baby.

Again, we do not know where they got their faith or their intention. – from some religion or no religion.  We do know that they, like every human being, had faced death and loss, and had continued to seek for a star.  They had searched so definitively that when they saw what they thought was the truth of God they jumped on their camels and rode 970 miles across the desert to find it.

Only a person who has seen the other side of death would dare to give myrrh as a gift to a newborn baby and his mother.  Only a baby and parents who were exceptionally in touch with the glory of life out of death would receive that gift in a way that would set the stage for the rest of a giver’s life.  What the magi would make of the myrrh no one knows.  They would never know of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.  But the open-source truth of the myrrh would inform the rest of their days.

There is no copyright on Jesus.  There is no copyright on the Bible – although there are some copyrights on some translations of the Bible.  People are free to do anything they want to do, or don’t want to do, with the Scripture, with their concept and teaching about Jesus.  He is an open-source messiah.  They can start any church they want.  They can say anything they want on television, from a pulpit, in politics, in a book. They can use their gold any way they think Jesus wants them to; they can do holiness and prayer any way they want; and they can even make anything they want of life and death.

There’s an incredible act of faith here – an act of faith by the eternal God in you and me – which was not lost on these three magi who came from God-knows-where for God-knows-what reason to worship a baby about whom they believed God-knows-what.  That act of faith by God is that, sooner or later, through the love and the spirit and the teaching, through the offering of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the true spirit of the messiah, which is the spirit of God, will come to the fore.

He does not control the message.  It is open-source.  As the Cambridge University Dictionary says, “Open-source software is free to use, and the original program can be changed by anyone.”

That’s the truth – or the beginning of the truth.  But if you have seen some kind of star, — if you’ve ridden your camel through the evening and parked it outside on the paving stones, — if you’ve ponied up in your life with some gold, and invested some frankincense, and even been forced to smell some of the myrrh, you know there’s a secret to this open-source Christ, and that is the guidance of the holy spirit.

And that spirit, no matter where on this desert you start, no matter what time of night, no matter what star you follow, no matter how much you mess with the software, that holy spirit of that open-source messiah will, in time, lead you into all truth. 

AMEN.