Thursday, March 8, 2007

Thoughts on Carolyn’s comments on March 7, 2007

Thanks for your kind words about my blog and about me. I really appreciate that you understand what my life has been like. You probably do understand because you probably have gone through a similar development in your life. It’s what you so aptly call, “self evolution.” As I move through life, I’m ever more conscious of the need to always make choices, even when the good choice is difficult and perhaps costly. The temptation is always to choose what Harry Emerson Fosdick called “weak resignation.”
I’m posting below three items that expand on the theme of self-evolution. They all come from 2006. The first is a sermon from my pastor in New York that he preached on Transfiguration Sunday of that year. The Transfiguration is celebrated on the last Sunday before the start of Lent. In Lent, we follow Jesus, as he comes down from the glorious mountain of the Transfiguration and heads for death. The sermon traces how Jack and Ennis of “Brokeback Mountain” coped, mostly unconsciously and not very effectively, with death. The sermon goes on to assert that we don’t have to be unconscious, even though it’s a great temptation.
The second item is a letter from my pastor that describes the possibility of becoming “Little Christs,” a possibility that at bottom is about making conscious choices to become the persons we want to be.
The third item is an essay I wrote that meditates on Jack and Ennis and on the possibility of Ennis and us becoming “Little Christs.”
All of these are about self evolution. Thanks for your insights.


2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Saint Mark 9:2-9

In nomine Jesu!

They had no expectations atop that mountain — not of vision, not of mystery, not of change. Up there all would be routine, “normal” — normal as they always knew it; normal as their “people” always knew it — normal, except that they would be together on the mountain, by its streams and in its coolness, high above their drab and arid home down on “the plain.” They had no expectations as they climbed up on the mountain, except that they would be together. Un-expecting, unprepared up on that mountain, they were terrified, yet they longed to remain there together. They were repulsed, yet compelled to return. Worse than that, they could not tell what had happened. They could not tell what had changed in “the other” nor admit what had changed in themselves. Worse than that, they could not let what had happened, what had changed, what was different — they could not let their great “mountaintop experience” — affect how they lived on the plain. “If you can't fix it, you've got to stand it.”

Those words — “If you can’t fix it, you’ve got to stand it” — the last words of Annie Proulx’ short story, Brokeback Mountain and the awards winning movie of the same name, have become a kind of mantra for all too many of us today. Whether it’s a dead end job or no job at all; whether we’re thinking globally, nationally or familially, these are words of surrender, of wounded relationships, battered hopes and shattered dreams; of helpless resignation and the frustrating paralysis of our very souls. “No matter what I know, no matter what I think, no matter what I believe, no matter what I do, nothing is going to change.” Poet and theologian Martin Franzmann called this kind of life “an aimless mote, a deathward drift from futile birth.” For all too many of us, these words ring true.

When Peter, James and John ascended the mountain with Jesus, they had a mountaintop experience; a vision of who they were and what they could and would really be. So did Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist on Brokeback Mountain. And just like Ennis and Jack — although for entirely different reasons — they could tell no one of what had happened, and so what happened made no difference and so nothing of substance could change. They couldn’t fix it, they had to stand it. How often do you feel the same?

There is no shortage, I think, of mountaintop experiences, of potential life-changing encounters with what is good and best and beautiful, of what is possible for our lives. My own mountaintop experience comes nearly every Sunday as I behold us gathering together for worship, for community, for the sake of one another; as this “communion of diverse individuals and communities” sings and prays and eats and drinks and laughs and cries together, a band of decidedly unique individuals with often mutually exclusive thoughts and behavior, transformed together into the vibrant, loving, caring, exuberant Body of the Christ. It is here that I understand Martin Luther King words, “I have been to the mountaintop! I have seen the Promised Land,” because I’ve glimpsed it and I’ve heard it and foretasted it with you. And I know that happens to all of us, if not when we worship, then in some other, more personal, way.

And that is why that sentence, “If you can’t fix it, you’ve got to stand it,” and the surrender that stands behind it grates so powerfully on me because I can’t believe God gives us these visions, these mountaintop experiences, without also giving us the will and power and courage to change.

From Brokeback Mountain, Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist came down alone. They went their separate ways, they lived with hollow lives and broken dreams. They came back to the mountain in order to escape from those lives, not in order to change them.

From the Mount of Transfiguration, Peter, James and John came down together, with Jesus. And though they could not tell the vision, they were shown how their lives would change. They went with Jesus, and saw the way of transfiguration. They went with Jesus and found the way of the cross. And after he had risen from the dead, they no longer had to just stand it; they had the hope and the courage and the vision and the power to change. They turned the whole world upside down!

Today, with Peter, James and John, in the presence of Jesus, we ascend to the mountaintop, we behold the vision; we glimpse our bright future; and we taste of the feast that is yet to come. With Peter, James and John — as with Ennis and Jack on the mountain — it is good for us to be here.

Yet we cannot remain.

We have been to the mountaintop! We have seen the Promised Land.

There is a choice for us in what follows. There is always a choice, no matter which was the mountaintop, when we come back down to the plain. We can go it alone, as did Jack and Ennis. We can go it alone like proud, self-reliant, self-sufficient Americans, and just stand it, all the drabness, all the dullness, all the injustice in our world and our lives. Then come back to the mountain as they did, for escape, for refreshment, and for all that is really real.

Or we can come from the mountain with Jesus, with Peter and James and John, and with each other, and because we live after Christ’s rising, we can turn the whole world upside down.

The way of the cross or the way that “just has to stand it.” That choice is up to you.

Amandus J. Derr
Saint Peter’s Church
In the City of New York

Newsletter Lent 2006
Dear Faithful People of Saint Peter’s,
One of my old friends, a now retired pastor unknown to most of us here at Saint Peter’s and never one of the members of this parish, tells this story of his ordination: “As I knelt there, surrounded by so many pastors whom I had grown up admiring, and as their words of blessing came tumbling down over my head, I thought to myself, ‘who do they think I am, Jesus Christ?’ And in the next instance I knew the answer: ‘Yes!’” Well, I don’t think I’m Jesus Christ. To my knowledge, none of you think you are Christ either but, as we begin Lent 2006, it’s worth asking yourself some related questions, namely, “What am I becoming? Who am I getting to be?”
Consciously or unconsciously, our way of thinking about ourselves — our personal anthropology — is shaped by the theology of Martin Luther. He, in turn, has told us that, as we mature in faith and in faithfulness, we are to become “little Christs.” As we all contemplate what we will do for our “Lenten discipline” this year, I suggest we ask ourselves how we are — or how we are not — like Jesus Christ, and shape our Lenten discipline accordingly. Furthermore, I suggest one resource — other than regular use of the Word and Sacraments — for that self-examination of our spiritual development: the Gospel according to Saint Mark. At 16 chapters, it is the shortest Gospel in the
Bible. It also presents the most dynamic picture of who Jesus Christ is and how he acted (and still acts). It is also the Gospel that will keep on shaping our liturgical life throughout this entire liturgical year.
What I’m suggesting here is a real Lent — a Lent beyond “giving up” eating, drinking and being merry and a Lent that focuses on the baptismal themes of growth in faith and life. I’m suggesting a more personal, even more private, Lenten observance that can result in something new and different happening to you. Such a Lent will focus on who we desire to be (led as we are by the Holy Spirit), will overflow with the grace of God, and probably will be devoid of all the little pieties that are often so selfishly centered. So a Lent will be a journey, not with an end but with a destination. That destination is a closer resemblance to Jesus Christ. It will be remarkably the same for all of us, and remarkably unique to each of us.
What do you say? Who do you think you are? What do others think of you? It’s not such a bad goal to want to become like Jesus Christ, is it? All you have to do is live like the only death you have to fear is already behind you! Come to think of it, in Jesus Christ — his living, dying and rising — that’s exactly what’s already true! Happy Lent!
Peace and Joy,
Amandus J. Derr, Senior Pastor

Conscious “Little Christs”
By PeteM
A response to Amandus J. Derr’s letter in the Newsletter, Lent, 2006 and to his sermon on Transfiguration Sunday, 2006

We are to become “Little Christs,” writes Luther. Most of us shy away from such a presumptuous idea, not the least because we know all too many “little gods” in this world who have anointed themselves as our saviors. We often follow these godlets without thinking; we follow unconsciously. Indeed, the more unconscious we are, the happier our would-be saviors are.
In contrast, letting ourselves be conscious can be the starting point for our seeking to change ourselves and our world, perhaps becoming “Little Christs.” However, ourselves and the world, consciously encountered, are hard, perhaps nearly impossible, to bear. In addition, we are small, the world is big, and, we may say, as in your sermon, “No matter what I know, no matter what I think, no matter what I believe, no matter what I do, nothing is going to change.” If by living consciously, we come to this conclusion, we may quickly again become unconscious by going into a trance in front of the TV or, as with Jack in “Brokeback Mountain,” in Mexican back alleys.
Ennis and Jack seemed unconscious; they seemed not to make conscious choices: They thought they couldn’t change, and, because of that unexamined, unconscious thought, they didn’t. If the reality we perceive while conscious is too difficult, we may not only drift into unconsciousness, but we may attempt to annihilate ourselves to shield ourselves from pain. In his “Beyond Resentment,” James Alison writes of the annihilation of desire and the self that many homosexuals, as for example, Ennis and Jack, have attempted. Annihilation is an effort to go through life without acknowledging the reality of that life: Don’t ask, don’t tell, even to yourself. As life becomes hard, many people, both heterosexual and homosexual, attempt annihilation. These attempts are likely to end up badly because with annihilation, we lose control of our lives. Changes come into our lives without a shaping effort on our part. In the movie change happened: Jack was murdered by homophobes; Ennis became incapacitated with his grief over Jack’s death. Neither Jack nor Ennis seemed able to influence the events in their lives. They couldn’t fix it, so they stood it.
Change, wanted and unwanted, always happens, and we are not conscious of most of it. We cannot be: The world is too big. But if we don’t work to become conscious of change in our life, then, indeed, our life is “an aimless mote in a deathward drift from futile birth.” We cannot change and become “Little Christs” aimlessly, unconsciously. If we are to take up our cross in our effort to become “Little Christs,” our decision must be voluntary and conscious. A difficulty in our life that comes involuntarily or without our being conscious of it is merely a circumstance, not a cross. Our first task, while conscious, is to acknowledge that becoming “Little Christs” must be an ongoing, conscious effort. We must consciously seek to change and to embody our part of the Body of Christ. The rub is that if we become conscious, we open ourselves to difficult, painful experiences. Why, therefore, we ask, make the effort? Aren’t we seeking pain for pain’s sake? Are we mere masochists? The answer, I think, is consciously to develop a goal to make our lives the best they can be. In other words, we need a plan for becoming a “Little Christ.”
March 24, 2006, was the 26th anniversary of the murder of Oscar Romero, Archbishop of El Salvador, and he is illustrative of someone who developed a conscious goal to be fully what he believed himself to be. Renny Golden has written of Romero that at first he was predictable: an orthodox, pious bookworm who criticized the clergy aligned with progressive liberation theology and with the impoverished farmers seeking land reform. But soon after becoming the new archbishop, his first priest, Rutilio Grande, along with two parishioners, was ambushed and killed, defending the peasants’ rights to organize farm cooperatives. With these murders, Romero changed, aligning himself with the peasants. He was conscious, as Jesus was conscious coming down the mountain, of choosing a goal, and in these cases, their goals led to their deaths. We can experience some of Romero’s change in the wonderful movie “Romero” with Raul Julia.
Although most of us are glad that we will not die martyrs, we can learn from them. Like them, we can consciously discern goals and pursue them; we can work with like-minded people to achieve these goals; and, if religious, we can worship and pray to experience God’s guidance toward discernment.
But, what if we’re not religious or, more to the point of this essay, what if we live among religious people who drive us away from the comforts of religion? Ennis and Jack seemed to live in a world mostly untouched by religion even though, at one point, when he was happy with Ennis, Jack sang a Gospel song he’d learned in his Pentecostal youth. Maybe they had left religion behind as they became adults, because the religion they knew disapproved of them and their love. After Jack had been murdered, Ennis visited the house of Jack’s parents who seemed religious. Jack’s father, religious though he might have been, offered Ennis only a grudging welcome. The father’s disapproval and the mother’s fear of the father were palpable, but by this time, Ennis was conscious of and unafraid of his love for Jack. After Jack’s death, when it was too late, Ennis didn’t care about their disapproval.
It was too late for Jack, but perhaps it was not too late for Ennis. When he turned down the advances of the woman in the bar, he might have been indicating that heterosexual relationships were not for him.
Was he conscious of this idea? We don’t know. That’s another story. But if he was conscious of who he was, this could be a breakthrough into conscious life and the acceptance of his homosexuality. If he were religious, he might say he was on his way to becoming a “Little Christ,” loving himself, as he was, so that he might love others.

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