Friday, February 27, 2009

Ashes and Attitude

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…” —Matthew 6:1

I spend every Sunday in a different parish. Large or small, urban or suburban or rural, high church or low, evangelical or catholic, formal or informal, enthusiastically charismatic or rather more reserved, “orthodox” or “progressive,” liberal or conservative—they are all Episcopal Churches. They are all scattered across the mountains, valleys, and plains of Colorado. They come in all shapes and sizes, either subtle or not so subtle in variation, and I tell people regularly that I wish that they could see what I see—all the many and various ways in which God’s people are listening to the voice of God, responding to the movement of the Spirit, and seeking to live ever more fully out of that living relationship with the living God that is ours to share. Those visitations are one of the joys of my vocation, and they have made at times for some interesting and unexpected insights....

....Not too many years ago during the course of a Sunday visitation, I was invited to lead a parish forum between services—nothing unusual, just an informal gathering of folks in the parish hall, an opportunity to have a cup of coffee and to share some conversation as a group with me, the bishop. This Sunday the conversation moved almost immediately to those difficult and controversial issues with which our denomination, like many others, has been wrestling for many years now—namely, issues of human sexuality and Christian faith. It was not a particularly difficult conversation. The parish was decidedly on the more liberal side of the fence. The questions and comments were honest, forthright and heartfelt. We were not in fact in any significant disagreement—with the exception that I was trying faithfully to reflect into the conversation some of the concerns that I was hearing from the more conservative voices in the diocese and to articulate some of the more conservative principles of the faith to which I myself hold. Still something wasn’t sitting quite right. There was something in the air so to speak, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on—a certain unspoken irritability or anger behind the words it seemed, a certain inflexible insistence in tone or attitude, a willfulness even, bordering perhaps on arrogance, that was at worst dismissive but at best simply cut off rather than opened up the possibility of deeper discovery and insight.

There was no ostensible disagreement, but it was I thought all rather disappointing. The underlying dynamic of the conversation was, to my thinking, all too familiar.

As I drove away, I found myself wondering where I might have had this experience before. It was all too close. “Where have I had this feeling?” I asked myself. Then it hit me. It was just one week earlier, just the previous Sunday, in a very different congregation to be sure, a very conservative congregation in fact, in which, during the course of the morning, the looks and the body language and the undertone were all much the same, all quite telling and revealing, only this time in this conversation we weren’t even talking about controversial subjects. Even so, it was all very much the same in tone and disposition—the same thinly veiled anger, a similar rigidity that could have been equally born out of fear or hurt or conviction or pride, all of it understandable in many ways, but all of it still displaying an unwillingness to risk the humility and vulnerability of that deeper engagement that leads in the end to wisdom and true compassion.

It was remarkable, I thought. Conservatives one week. Liberals the next The content was different. The positions were different. But the attitude was very much the same. As I drove home, I could hear the words of a friend of mine—a Mennonite from Iowa—echoing in my mind. Some years earlier he had shared a lay person’s perspective with a group of clergy. “I just want you to know,” he said with great honesty and compassion, “that from where I sit in the pews, I just can’t tell the difference.” He paused for a moment, and when he continued he spoke very quietly. “I can’t tell the difference,” he said gently, “between an angry, self-righteous liberal and an angry, self-righteous conservative.”

Hardness of heart, it would seem, is neither described by nor limited to theological position or party affiliation. In the kingdom of God, it would seem, attitude counts.

This should not be news. Evagrius Ponticus, the first of the early desert monks to write extensively on spirituality, put it this way in the fourth century. “The soul in this world who is full of gentleness is worth more than a monk full of passion and anger.”[1] Or, as Jesus put it even as he warned his disciples of the dangerous self-inflation lurking in practices of public piety, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are the meek…blessed are the merciful…blessed are the pure in heart.” The disposition of the heart does matter. In this, Jesus says, “is the kingdom of heaven.”[2] While anger or insistence or willfulness or shear force of ego may carry the argument of the day, only compassion has the capacity to transform human hearts.

The ministry of reconciliation given to us by Jesus cannot, will not, be accomplished otherwise.

Thus we begin this season of intentional self-examination, praying in effect for that attitude adjustment of the heart that we are powerless to effect within ourselves but is indeed the fruit of the spirit of God moving deeply within us—interceding, as Paul would say, “with sighs too deep for words”—to the degree, of course, that we are willing to create space and to give God room. [3]

Remember. Remember. Remember. Remember.

Remember, we hear on this Ash Wednesday, that you are dust. Remember that you shall return to dust. Those words are not simply an admission of our mortality. They are, even more importantly, an acknowledgment of the absolute reign of God—a reminder that we do not possess anything, that our life is not ours, that none of us has room to boast, and that we will always do well to hold fast to the truth that apart from Love we are nothing.

[1] Cited from Owen Chadwick’s introduction to John Cassian: Conferences (New York: Paulist Press, The Classics of Western Spirituality, 1985), page 11.
[2] Matthew 5:3-10
[3] Romans 8:26