Monday, August 8, 2016

Changed from nomads into pilgrims

Karen Armstrong has authored several bestsellers on comparative religion. Raised a Roman Catholic, in 1960 she became a nun at eighteen and remained in a convent seven years. She left her order and the Roman Catholic Church convinced she was an agnostic if not an atheist. Over the next several decades, she felt lost, unsure of what to do with her life. She tried broadcasting and teaching, but neither was a good fit. Then she decided to write a book about God and religion. The decision seemed ill timed and ill advised. Secularism was elbowing faith of all flavors aside. And who was she, an ex-nun and unbeliever, to write about God? Yet the decision felt right, so she persevered. Her first bestseller, A History of God, led to more bestsellers. With each book, Armstrong moved toward a deeper and more mystical understanding of God. Her autobiography, The Spiral Staircase, is appropriately subtitled, My Climb Out of Darkness.[1] Her struggles taught her three great spiritual principles that are also form the heart of today's scripture readings.
First, life is a journey. Armstrong describes her journey toward God as climbing a spiral staircase. The metaphorical staircase is spiral because as we move toward God we repeatedly experience situations that push, move, or lure us in a helpful direction. Only in retrospect did she realize that her decisions to become a nun, broadcaster, and university professor were wrong for her because she had been following another person's path instead of having the wisdom, courage, and strength to follow her own unique path. Faith is not so much a set of propositional truths, but a journey toward God.
The epistle to the Hebrews identifies Abraham as a paragon of faith.[2] Too often, we misunderstand the epistle's definition of faith, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” We interpret those words out of context, equating faith with theological tenets in our creeds and catechisms. Instead, Abraham's faith connotes his firm belief that God has promised him an inheritance of valuable land. With no map, no GPS, and not even knowing his final destination, he embarks on a journey to claim his inheritance, confident that God will lead him to it and then give him possession.
Furthermore, Abraham believes that God has also promised him that he will be the father of many nations. Now Abraham is both a realist and possibility thinker. He and his wife, Sarah, are old and childless. She’s well past childbearing age. He scoffs at God for this absurd promise. So, he follows local custom, taking Sarah's slave, Hagar, as a concubine, impregnates her, and then designates her son, Ishmael, as his heir.[3] Ishmael, in fact, becomes the father of the Arabs. But God's plan was for post-menopausal Sarah to give birth to Isaac, through whom Jews trace their lineage to Abraham. Sadly, the Abraham narrative fuels centuries of territorial conflict between Abraham’s Arab and Jewish descendants who both claim title to the Promised Land. In sum, Abraham so fully trusted his relationship with God that his faith took his life’s journey in a God-ward direction.
Second, compassion invariably characterizes any journey that leads toward God. Armstrong learned from her study of religion that the closer a person moved toward God, the more the person practiced an ethic of compassion. Her own experience of moving in a God-ward direction echoed her observation.
Today's reading from the prophet Isaiah teaches the same lesson. Isaiah insists that God "is more concerned with [humans'] behavior in their social relationships than with the formal worship offered to [God]."[4] The reading is probably a sermon Isaiah preached during worship in the Jerusalem temple, a setting evocative of our worship.[5] Isaiah boldly reprimands the congregation for the injustices he had witnessed, presumably shocking his hearers who believed that their ritual cleanliness (equivalent to Holy Baptism and church membership), regular prayers, and generous giving assured them of God's favor. Isaiah boldly and insultingly compares his hearers to Sodom and Gomorrah's rulers.
He concludes, "Come now, let us reason together. … If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land." That is, be a person who does good things (loves God and other people in situationally appropriate ways), seeks justice (strives to be fair with others), rescues the oppressed, defends the orphan, and pleads for the widow (protectively care for the most vulnerable). In sum, God's priority is who we are, how we live, not our religious activities.
Third, journeying toward God and practicing compassion changes the person from a nomad into a pilgrim, and from floundering in darkness to savoring life abundant. As Jesus said, "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."[6] Karen Armstrong experienced this transformation. Once she began to follow her own path, she imperceptibly, especially at first, moved toward God. The continuing growth of compassion toward others and all creation reinforced and accelerated that growth until she was living a rich, fulfilling life.
For those of us who seek to journey toward God following Jesus' teachings yet remaining faithful to our individual calling, the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion are steps on our spiral staircases, moving us inexorably closer to God while nurturing in us an ethic of compassion.
One of the most memorable baptisms I have performed was that of a mentally challenged young adult when "Happy Days" was a popular sitcom. Immediately following his baptism, this young man, deeply devoted to the Church and overflowing with joy, emulated his other role model, the Fonz, and spontaneously gave the thumbs up signal accompanied by the Fonz' distinctive grunt.
A woman brought “her little daughter to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue while on her regular shopping trip to Manhattan. When her daughter asked her why there were homeless huddling by the doors, her mother explained that not only did the church welcome all people, but it also felt a particular responsibility for the poor. Because of this loving inclusion, she explained, the cold and hungry were offered a place of rest in the church, a sanctuary from the harsh world outside. The young daughter pondered her mother’s words.
“After receiving communion, her mother hurried back to her pew, afraid for her daughter who was talking to a homeless man. As she approached the two, she heard her little daughter say to the man, ‘Are you hungry? If you are, there is enough at the altar for everybody.’ Joy filled the mother’s heart.”[7]
Jesus exhorts his disciples to exercise constant vigilance because loving God and our neighbors, just like other relationships, can be fragile. May we faithfully journey as pilgrims, cherishing moments in which we experience the intensity and depth of God's love; may those moments inspire us to live compassionately.



[1] Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness (New York: Anchor, 2004).
[2] Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16.
[3] E. A. Speiser, Genesis (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1964), pp. 111-112, 119-121.
[4] R.B.Y. Scott, Exegesis of Isaiah, Vol. 5, in The Interpreter's Bible, edited by G.A. Buttrick (Nashville: Abingdon, 1956), 170.
[5] Isaiah 1:1, 10-20.
[6] Luke 12:32-40.
[7] Donald B. Harris, That’s How the Light Gets In (Williamsburg, VA: Credo Institute, 1994), pp. 204-205.

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