Sunday, March 24, 2013

Being present

Palm Sunday.

Two weeks later, I still find myself fascinated by Marina Abramović’s 2010 retrospective, The Artist is Present, in which I found my “Prodigal Son” sermon a few weeks ago. After watching the 3 minute clip of her “reunion” with her ex-partner Ulay, I ordered the documentary of the whole exhibition and her preparation for it. It was a teensy bit disillusioning—apparently she and Ulay had planned for him to come, but what I hadn’t known before was that the two of them, forty years earlier, had done a piece in which they sat and stared at each other for hours on end, which offered a new dimension to her project in general and him sitting with her in particular. Seeing the short scene of the two of them was not less moving, though, having watched them prepare soup together at her country house a few days before.  The image remains—hands reached out looking for connection, a moment of desire for another that transcends everything, dissolving into a pure encounter of fully seeing the other, love at the center.

 Watching Abramović prepare for the work—of sitting still for eight hours a day for three months—was especially striking while, as a priest, I peer forward into holy week. These days between Palm Sunday and Easter are a singular experience—there’s no “working ahead,” no way to even contemplate Easter before you’ve gone through Good Friday.  And by “gone through,” that’s what I mean:  you celebrate with palms, you wash feet, you hear the words: “Love one another.” Then, the suffering of the cross, the almost perverse way we prostrate ourselves at the symbol of suffering, trying to merge our own pain with Jesus’ and grasp what it means.   Holy Week is always different from year to year, but also always the same: I know Sunday is coming, but I also know there’s still a long way to go before we’re there.

Watching Abramović train the students who would recreate some of her pieces, it’s obvious just how much is demanded of the artist; physically as well as spiritually. The self and the piece merge, but also split each other open. The woman on the wall, practically crucified, can’t just step into the role. There’s more to it than that. Abramovic says that the artist has to be a warrior: unreasonable feats of endurance become a necessary vocation.  

Hearing her talk so passionately, I think: that’s the kind of priest I want to be. I learned on sabbatical how dependent I am—both in my self-perception and in my prayer—on doing Sacraments in community. I am a priest—for now, a parish priest—in a particular context—but I’m also a tired mother who crashes on the couch after her kids are finally, finally asleep, and can barely articulate her desire for Indian instead of Chinese for dinner.  Sometimes being split open and poured out is a lot less romantic than she makes it sound.

This is how real vocation works, I think—the artist, the priest, the poet, the activist--these endeavors are not optional. Like most sometime-writers, I mope around wishing I’d done more, and only sit down to focus when not writing is the only thing worse than writing.  My poor self-esteem over my bad creative habits is not particularly warrior-like.

The genius of Marina Abramović, though, is so much deeper than that—of course we “are” the things we really care about.   Watching people actually participate in her work, the most moving part of it was how she offered her gaze, her singular gaze, to each person who came. And in seeing each person, she opened a space for that one to see himself or herself reflected there in its wholeness and integrity. In love.

 As best as I can tell, that’s what the work of God is; the imago dei, the image of God in each of us that is so singular and lovely and precious. The mirror reflection of God in us is so eminently worth seeing, even as we live our lives wiping shit all over it. That gaze is also impersonal, showing that we are each loved no more, but crucially no less, than anyone else.  Nothing is required of us.  You don’t have to sleep on the sidewalk waiting to get in and no security guard will escort you away if you make a false move.  It’s always there. It’s who you are, whether you are faithful to your blog or your meditation practice or check your email too often at your kid’s soccer game. Though it would still perhaps be better if you did those things.

So, now, Palm Sunday.  As happened last year, this week I also have a funeral to contend with, which also will be fine. All shall be well—I can fear this walk we undertake, from death into life. I can resist it I can do it well or poorly, preach coherent sermons or babble on. The grace, though, for the priest (as well as the artist) is that in front of the altar, all of that comes along, and none of it matters. You can only have feelings “about” the future or the past. You can only inhabit the singular moment.

You can only be   


I will be


Sunday, March 10, 2013

Sermon for Lent 4: The Arms of God

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32: The Story of the Prodigal Son

The video referenced in the sermon can be found on youtube:  The Artist is Present

There are a lot of stories in Scripture that are sort of blinding in their familiarity. Certainly, the prodigal son is one of them. You can tick through the stock interpretations pretty fast—we’re all sinners, God loves us anyway. No, we’re the older brother and we’re well-behaved but embittered, and God’s kind of a jerk.  No, God is a jerk, but that’s because we’re worse, and it’s supposed to be about how limited and petty we are, which makes God look good by comparison .  Everybody’s buttons get pushed somewhere

Every time this comes around in the lectionary—and this is the third time, since I think we were in “C” the year I started here—every time, Marcia reminds me how much she hates the story and how unfair it is. And of course it seems unfair. It is unfair, if you hear it as being good being its own reward. Hogwash. Being good is fine, but it’s not just fun for the sake of it either.

The thing about a parable, though, is that we’re not supposed to take it at face value like that. A parable isn’t a tidy allegory where all the pieces fit together, where we can assign everybody a part and ask them to read out loud and enunciate clearly. I mean, who would you be? You’d be the younger or older brother at every other moment, left for dead because you’re so bad or practically walking dead because you’re so good.  We can to oscillate throughout our hours, nevermind how much we change in a lifetime.

But what if we tried to stop reading the parable just about us?
What if we stopped, just for a minute, gleaning information about ourselves, looking for the judgment or the acquittal? What if the prodigal son isn’t about the son at all, or even the brother? What if it’s all about the parent, running through the field, wondering if his eyes could be deceiving him because the sight is such a wonder?

This week, I watched an astonishing video from a performance piece by Marina Abramovic. Abramovic is a superstar of performance art, the kind your grandmother warned you about, where you pay money to watch someone starve themselves for a month or cut themselves with a knife.    

Having done all those things, in 2010, for 2 ½ months she sat in a gallery at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and invited anyone who wanted to to come and sit across from her. For however long they wanted, people could just sit. In silence. And she’d look at them. And they’d look at her, for as long as they’d want to. A lot of people came to see her and sat down and cried. Then, they’d put themselves back together, and then someone else would come.

I don’t know why it came around now, but this week a facebook friend posted on his page a video that came from this endeavor, now three years old, of Abramovic being surprised by her former partner, another artist whom she’d worked with, whom she hadn’t seen for over twenty years. They had been deeply in love and pushed all kinds of artistic boundaries together, but eventually felt called to go their separate ways. Rather than a final cardboard box in the trunk, however, when their relationship was over they walked the Great Wall of China from opposite ends and met in the middle, in order to say goodbye.   That was in 1988.  It was over, and they agreed they’d never meet again.  

22 years later, in 2010, she’s doing her biggest show ever at the Museum of Modern Art.  And all kinds of people come—whoever has the patience to wait their turn—ordinary people, famous people, all bringing their own anxiety and their own pain to the meeting, but largely anonymous. But then Ullay comes.  He’s in his sixties, but well dressed in fancy jeans and a red shirt.  Between visitors, she looks down and collects herself, and as she’s doing this, eyes closed, he sits down, stretches his legs as though to calm himself, and settles down. He’s clearly self-conscious.

And she looks us and smiles a little, and she smiles a little, and he kind of shakes his head, and the camera focuses on her face and she begins to cry, slowly, and it goes to him and he looks, and shakes his head a little, and then she moves forward and extends her hands over the table. And her hands are out, just for a split second, and you hold your breath and you don’t know what he’s going to do.

And he takes her hands. And everyone has been so well-behaved, but they all start to clap—they can’t hold it in. They have witnessed something deeply profound.  And they just sit there and hold hands, and then he gets up and she covers her face with her hands, and the next one comes.

That is the moment that this parable is about.  Hands extended, she reaches into space, not sure what will happen. 

In the story, the son comes home, fearful and ashamed. He comes planning to ask his father to treat him as a hired hand, to give him just enough to live on. I am no longer worthy enough to be called your son, he rehearses.

But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.

That moment that is the prodigal son coming home.

Where there is so much reality, so much emotion just poured into this one moment. And all the crazy stuff, and all the drama, and all the time that Marina Abramovic spent being the premier performance artist of Belgrade and New York, those nights spent setting her fingernail cuttings on fire—all of that stuff just falls away.  No longer worthy to be called anything, because the moment doesn’t call for naming or definitions. There is only the truth of a relationship that was so powerful only a landmark visible from space could contain it.  And there’s redemption, and forgiveness, and no, they’re not going to go back to how things were—the younger son isn’t going to be put in charge of the farm, after all—everything has changed—but the truth of their connection has not. 

So, too, the truth of our connection, God’s desire for us burning hotter than the sun, reaching out God’s arms for us.

This is how Henry Nouwen describes it:

 "Here the mystery of my life is unveiled. I am loved so much that I am left free to leave home. The blessing is there from the beginning. I have left it and keep on leaving it. But the Father is always looking for me with outstretched arms to receive me back and whisper again in my ear: 'You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.' " (quoted from The Prodigal Son, excerpted at Spirituality and Practice)

What does that change for you?  Where is your heart moved toward love, away from judgment or self-satisfaction?  For whom do you receive the gift of God’s compassion, believing it for yourself, being freed to offer it to others?

'You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.' " Amen.

Friday, March 1, 2013

I had been hoping for unicorns...

this is based on a piece I wrote for the Christ Church weekly newsletter; more of these are at

As I do every so often, this morning I was with the Sisters of Saint Anne in Arlington, saying Mass for the convent. Our Gospel was the story of Lazarus and the rich man—Lazarus who suffered at the gate of the rich man’s house, poor and begging, and the rich man, who after death found himself in burning flames while Lazarus and Abraham snuggled together in heaven. As I wrote last week, I’m pretty agnostic about an individual “Big Bad” (i.e., Satan/the devil) but I do believe that there must be some  sense of wholeness and restoration for us in the passage from life to death, and that must certainly include a sense of sharing in the suffering that we’ve inflicted.

Let me explain a little more.
Nice as it sounds, I don’t think that everything is unicorns and fluffy clouds after we die.  Even for the purest in heart, our puny minds can’t even imagine how grace-filled and beautiful it will be to be united with God.  I think we are fully known now, but we don’t fully see. Then will see “face to face” (1 Corinthians 13.12) and know as we have been fully known. As we are known, now—then we will know. And part of that knowing surely must be how we are linked to others, how the suffering of one person hurts us all. In our life together now, we hide those connections; we don’t see the suffering of the animals we eat, or the panic of polar bears losing the ice they depend on.  We don’t visit the factories that make our stuff, don’t feel the depth of the unending fear of those who live in war zones and suffer genocide.  We allow them to stay far away—frankly, we prefer it that way.

How would our world change if we enacted Christ’s call to love our enemies? We barely even try to imagine because we’re too afraid they’d shoot first.

But in that “face to face” encounter? All of that has to fall away. The cost of our lives comes into focus. Suffering will no longer be invisible. And yes, I think it’s going to hurt. Not because God wants to punish us—and likely not with literal flames (IT’S A METAPHOR!)—but because seeing the real nature of reality that we can only dimly imagine now will show us how we are linked. And if a Pakistani woman whose husband has been killed by a drone strike really is my sister, those unicorns and fluffy clouds are going to feel pretty far away.

Still, the heart of the Gospel is forgiveness; still Jesus forgave even from the cross. I also don’t believe that what we do is forever.  I can’t imagine that anything we ourselves can do can trump God’s power to restore all things and all persons.  Only God can do forever.  We can pray—with our hearts as well as our hands and feet. We ask God for the grace to be bold enough to witness suffering—not to hide—and strong enough to do something about it. We’re called to inhabit the space between, of grieving oppression in the world as well as acting on it. Righting injustices but also thanking God for full bellies and access to health care.   Bringing the “Kingdom/kin-dom of God” to be right here and right now, and helping to knock down that wall between “heaven” and “earth.”

In baptism, we embrace the covenant  “with God’s help”—a lot is wrong, but a lot is possible, too. And we know we’re not working alone.