The size of the dragon.
Earthquakes make you wonder what’s going on, don’t they? When it comes to natural disasters, people are quick to ask, “How could God do such a thing?” which puts me in a difficult spot because I simultaneously believe that God possesses ultimate power over all of creation AND I believe that God would never intentionally do harm. So most natural disasters, I tend to write off as Global Warming, man-caused disasters. Earthquakes, though…shifting tectonic plates…just massive sheets of stone that have no desire or impulses of their own, certainly no knowledge of who and what is built on top of them…the earth sneezes and the third largest economy of the world—one of the most equal societies of our time—is sent spiraling into chaos and disaster and suffering.
It’s Lent, a time when we of the Christian faith are meant to reflect on Jesus’ 40 day trial in the desert, which directly preceded his ministry which, in retrospect, can be seen as one circuitous and constant journey to the Cross. It’s a journey that begins with an encounter with the ultimate—an encounter that teaches: You are a Beloved Child of God. With that understanding, we undertake a Lenten journey in which we try to match that new identity with the reality of life on the planet earth. For me, that has come to mean aligning with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s understanding of how God is revealed to us: In our suffering. Contrary to popular belief, suffering is not counter to the existence of an all-loving, ever-present God…as I have come to understand…suffering is required to meet God. So our understanding of our relationship with God is not challenged by suffering, but rather it requires us to think about what it truly means to be “Beloved.” It doesn’t mean that nothing happens to you.
Jesus’ journey takes place in the desert…in the wilderness. I was blessed this year to have a very specific physical journey to make while on this non-specific inner journey…going into the desert…going home to Arizona. Next week I will reflect on the setting of the desert, what that particular place has to teach us about God and our identity in God as “Beloved.” But this week I’m reflecting on the journey I took to get there. Because, unlike Jesus, who, upon his Baptism, was “immediately” driven into the wilderness by the Spirit (Mark 1: 12), I had to travel by (literally) train, plane, and automobile across 1/3 of the planet get there. And that journey alone—the journey before THE journey—is something to learn from.
Dresden, Germany…former HQ of the King of Saxony, premiere seat of German culture, home of a delightful little mall called “Kneipeviertel.” Inka got us a trip to Dresden and a show at the Dresden Opera for Christmas. Apparently Dresden is known, by those who know of it, mainly for the opera. We saw Mozart’s The Magic Flute. It was a phenomenal trip, everything was fascinating and beautiful; not least of which was the opera itself. It’s all about gods and epic journeys through other-worldly places, and the set design, costumes, and tone of the show served to really bring the audience into that world. It was like watching a live-action cartoon. It was great. And confusing. And THAT was kind of great too. We breakfasted at Starbucks, dined in a bistro, toured several old, gaudy churches, walked along the Elbe River. It was fantastic. That’s where I was on Ash Wednesday, as the Lenten season began. A picturesque vacation trip…before I went to the train station, heard about an earthquake in Japan, and began a 43 hour journey to Arizona. Along the way I would catch TV reports, newspapers, hearing about devastation spreading across Japan…racing towards my home as so many were in the process of losing theirs. Most of my fellow travelers did not seem to be similarly engaged with what was happening. They were a little too busy complaining about every aspect of (what was seriously and honestly) a punctual, and somewhat luxurious trip. Welcome home, Brian. Remember what it sounds like?
At this point, I have to refer you to Louis C.K. because there’s just no better way to express how infuriating it is to listen to privileged people complaining about their quality of privilege. I took a train from Dresden to Duesseldorf, in other words, I took a train across all of Germany. The unionized train drivers had declared strikes throughout the week in Germany, so after we checked out of our hotel Friday morning, I had one job: Figure out how to travel across the nation and arrive at the Duesseldorf airport by 8:00a.m. Saturday morning. Turned out, it wasn’t that difficult. I caught them on a non-strike day. So after a nine hour train ride, I reached my destination, found a place to grab some food and a drink, and tried to sleep for awhile. I was successful for about 3 hours before an overly excited young boy arrived at the airport and clearly couldn’t care less about things like time of night or the human need for sleep. I awoke to this kid playing and laughing nonstop for about five minutes. You would have thought it was the middle of the day at a playground. There are worse ways of waking up. But when I opened my eyes, the TVs were already back on, relaying the latest news about Japan. A Tsunami had hit, sea water was threatening the security of non-stable nuclear power plants. I didn’t know it at the time, but that would be the last time I would sleep until arriving home in AZ, nearly a day later. I had dreamed about a world on fire.
Beloved…loved…accepted….blessed…This is who I am, this is who you are, this is what I believe to be most true in our universe: We are loved and sustained, even in unsustainable and suffering times. Which is why it just gets on my nerves to hear everyone around me complaining about everything. I had not been around English speakers for a long time. I was excited. I was listening to everything…and it was all complaining. Apparently, if you believe what you hear, our world consists of nothing but people who don’t know how to do their jobs; political leaders with worthless ideas; societies that are either a) fat, b) lazy, c) stupid, or d) all of the above; and nothing cool or convenient has ever been invented to do anything other than brake down. On TV I was watching a nation of people face an uncertain future, wrestling with a situation that literally changed the face of the planet by six inches…and might shake things up again before it’s all over. And yet, the woman sitting next to me, on a flight that was neither taking off nor arriving later than scheduled, was enjoying a back and forth with her other neighbor, “Can you believe how long we waited on that runway? It’s like, can someone just do your job please? Oh, don’t mind us, we’re just people trying to get home, it’s ok to let us wait I guess.” In other news: There were no airplane crashes on Saturday March 12, 2011.
It’s a solid reminder: the systems at work in our world keep us invested in a reality that we find dissatisfying, constantly and almost in every way. I see it as an illusion of the world, a trick of smoke and mirrors that attempts to convince you that a long line, or heavy traffic, or a sassy waitress has the power to ruin your day. It’s an illusion that claims: Not getting what you want can outweigh the blessing of being alive. And we identify with that illusion, we allow it to define us; so we’re angry, unsatisfied, and apathetic…because this is life…this is the world…can’t do anything about it.
Lent has been billed as a time when we forgo worldly temptations to strengthen our spiritual resolve; again, mirroring the story of Jesus’ testing in the desert. We skip over the part that started Jesus on this journey—a new understanding of himself as God’s Son, God’s Beloved. It’s immediately after hearing these words at his baptism, “You are my child,” that we read “Jesus was immediately lead into the wilderness.” The Lenten journey begins with hearing this identity: You are God’s Beloved; and the we spend the next 40 days (minus Sundays) attempting to come to terms with that identity. It’s an encounter with a way of being that runs counter and through our physical, flawed, limited world. Forget giving up bad habits for Lent, forget your fasting…unless those are ways of living that help you enter the space where you can take on the identity of God’s Beloved. The only discipline that matters during this time is the daily reminder that we are more than what we do, our lives are about more than just what happens during our day, and minor discomforts or inconveniences are…exactly that. Minor. Trivial. Hardly worth noting…especially while the earth is trembling.
Somewhere over the Atlantic, it occurred to me that, for some people, a journey is just a way of getting from one place to another. Maybe that’s why Lent is primarily thought of as a time of resisting temptation. It’s easier to have a project for 40 days than it is to JOURNEY for 40 days. I’ve been trained to look at traveling as an opportunity to encounter something new and exciting…others have not had this training, and they treat the act no differently than everything else in their lives—an inconvenience, something to moan over while you get from A to B as quickly as possible. No wonder we are an Easter People with so few collective Easter Experiences. The Lenten journey is not a physical one, and it’s not something with an end-goal. As I was revisiting a favorite prayer book, “The Celtic Way of Prayer” by Esther de Waal, I was reminded that Celtic Christianity has a term that speaks better to what the Lenten Journey really looks like:
“peregrinatio…It shows how misleading is that word “pilgrimage” as we use it and how very different indeed is the Celtic peregrination from the pilgrimages of the Middle Ages or the present day. There is no specific end or goal such as that of reaching a shrine or a holy place…Peregrinatio is not undertaken at the suggestion of some monastic abbot or superior but because of an inner prompting in those who set out, a passionate conviction that they must undertake what was essentially an inner journey…The impulse is love.”
Jesus did not enter the desert to become more pious, did not do it to escape bad habits or luxurious temptations; it was a direct response to the revelation of Love, “You are God’s Son,” you are God’s Beloved. Anything that happened to him after that had to do with understanding that identity, and what that meant for how he would live in this world. It was the revelation that there was more to life than what happened to him. There was a reality beyond his direct experiences. And connecting with that changed everything.
In my short few days back to the states, I find myself more at peace with America than I have been in a long time. When I left in the summer, I was so full of frustration and rage, feeling like I had no country to identify with. Since returning…that’s all gone. I laugh a lot now. The way you do when watching a small child play with a ball, knowing it’ll probably pop them in the face at some point, and as they cry from the surprise of it, you scoop them up and chuckle while uttering words of assurance, “Oh, baby, it’s ok. It just scared you. Tee-hee. You’re ok, yeah?” That’s kind of the attitude I find myself having since landing in Atlanta. I chuckle and I want to just cradle these people, “Oh, sweetheart, they only gave you one bag of peanuts? The in flight movie sucked? You had to sit on the runway for 10 minutes? You think this matters for some reason? Oh, it’s ok, darling. Shake it off. Don’t cry.” Condescending? Absolutely. I can’t help it, though. I can’t seem to care about what any of these people are talking about, but I genuinely think they’re cute for getting so worked up. I’m not saying that I’m above that, and I’m not saying that people’s frustrations are somehow invalid. I just think they’re cute. And sometimes (often) amusing. And that’s really just because I have been set on a journey on the impulse of love, which has its hardships to be sure, but it makes me less aware of inconvenience or comfort or petty bickering. My values have shifted in a way where I don’t see any big dragons that need slaying…there’s just these little annoying dragons…and I don’t want to be a bully. I’m waiting for a really big one before I get to slaying.
Eddie Izzard is a brilliant comedian you should be familiar with. He likes to wear clothes that have traditionally been described as “women’s clothes.” In an interview he did on Fresh Air, this is from a few years ago, he dismissed the term “transvestite,” saying that he doesn’t really identify with that term. He think it’s outdated and doesn’t mean anything, and it doesn’t describe him. He said, “People get fixated about what you’re wearing, but it’s more internal than that…but the only way to access the internal is to externalize it.” The clothes he wears are an external expression of an internal reality. We baptize for the same reason: it is an external sign or symbol to express an internal reality. I find that I have been most lost in my adult life when I have not had ways of externalizing a truth that has been in my heart since I was fifteen: I am wholly and completely loved, and I am connected to all of creation through that love. When I lack the ability to externalize that reality…that’s when things get bad. That’s when I get disconnected from the world, when I take some wrong turns, when I fail. The journey I take during Lent…peregrenatio…begins with a swelling of love that sends me to the desert to figure out how to reconcile that love with a cruel and suffering world. There’s no end point, there’s no specific destination…there’s just the hope of re-birth, the promise of Easter…somewhere out there.
As I was being entertained at court on Thursday night, millions of people in Japan were dealing with the aftermath of the earth quaking beneath them. As I was enjoying a comfortable seat and friendly conversation on a train across the German country side, a tsunami was raging through Japanese cities, wiping the landscape clean as if it were an Etch-a-Sketch. Around the time I was enjoying a glass of red wine and a book, sailing carefree through a crystal sky…ocean waters flooded nuclear reactors. As I touched down in Arizona, filled with relief and joy to return home, filled with energy and thanks…I somehow simultaneously heard a racist joke, a derogatory comment about gay men, and mumbles and grumbles about…who knows what. I gathered my things, holding prayers for my friends Shuji and Natsumi and their homes and families….and walked immediately out into the desert.