Posted by: Titus Presler | April 8, 2014

Hard places – Resonance, pathos and mission

Bits from Rowan Williams’ Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014) amplify my posting yesterday about risk in putting oneself next to chaos:

You don’t go down into the waters of the Jordan without stirring up a great deal of mud. . . . The new humanity that is created around Jesus is not a humanity that is always going to be successful and in control of things, but a humanity that can reach out its hand from the depth of chaos and be touched by the hand of God. And that means that if we ask the question, “Where might you expect to find the baptized?” one answer is, “In the neighborhood of chaos.”   It means that you might expect to find Christian people near to those places where humanity is most at risk, where humanity is most disordered, disfigured and needy. Christians will be found in the neighborhood of Jesus – but Jesus is found in the neighborhood of human confusion and suffering . . . If being baptized is being led to where Jesus is, then being baptized is being led towards the chaos and the neediness of a humanity that has forgotten its own destiny. . . .

The baptized person is not only in the middle of human suffering and muddle, but in the middle of the love and delight of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. That surely is one of the most extraordinary mysteries of being Christian. . . . [T]he path of the baptized person is a dangerous one. Perhaps baptism really ought to have some health warnings attached to it: “If you take this step, if you go into these depths, it will be transfiguring, exhilarating, life-giving and very, very dangerous.” To be baptized into Jesus is not to be in what the world thinks of as a safe place. Jesus’ first disciples discovered that in the Gospels, and his disciples have gone on discovering it ever since.

From a cosmic perspective, the God who created a universe where the random proliferates and free choice flourishes found that one result of randomness and freedom is a vast underside of vulnerability, anguish and suffering. These occur not only in isolated spots but, in one way or another, throughout and in close juxtaposition with the joyful and prosperous. God gravitates to the pathos, contemplates its gravity and waits for human companions to join God there – companions who empathize with those who grieve and vibrate with God’s own yearning for human wholeness.

That yearning empathy of God is evident in the Moses and Exodus saga of these pre-Easter days in the Daily Lectionary. How does the story begin? With God saying, “I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians.”

“I have seen . . . I have heard . . . I know . . . I have come down.” God gravitated to the pathos and there waited for a companion – well, actually recruited a companion at the burning bush. However reluctant Moses was initially, he became a passionate prophet and a charismatic leader, the more so that he had his own crises of faith and quarrels with God all along the way. Sometimes his passion for the Hebrews’ deliverance exceeded their own.

“I have come down” – God’s statement culminates in the Incarnation, this time not to heal and solve and deliver from the outside but to be immersed and overwhelmed from the inside and from the inside of humanity’s pathos to catalyze a new way of being, a new humanity. Especially tuned to the presence of God and to the image of God within himself, Jesus gravitated to the vulnerable, the anguished, the suffering: “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven. . . . Blessed are you who grieve now, for you will be comforted.” At the tomb of Lazarus, “Jesus wept.”

“Where might you expect to find Jesus?” Rowan Williams asks, and replies, “In the neighborhood of chaos.”

All this engages acutely the nature of Christian mission and the difficult discernment about how the Church should direct its mission. While preaching at Grace Church, Manhattan, on Epiphany in January, I said this:

The question I ask you to consider is this: If the encounter with Islam is one of the three major challenges the world community is facing in the 21st century [the others being the poverty and the environment], and the one of those three that is more explicitly religious than the others, what is the mission of the church in engaging that challenge?

The most direct and flesh-and-blood global engagement of the Episcopal church is through its missionaries, and here the focus is telling: out of about 60 churchwide missionaries – already a very small number for a church of 2 million – only a handful are engaged with the world of Islam. Why is that? Well, is has everything to do with difference and danger: Islam is today a formidable reality where militancy aggravates the difference and magnifies the danger.

Keenly aware of this is Buck Blanchard, the Mission Director for the Diocese of Virginia. A layman and former lawyer, Buck has coordinated the global mission efforts of the Diocese of Virginia for about 8 years. Buck is a mission activist concerned with poverty, the environment, and the rights of women around the world, but he’s also very concerned about the Episcopal Church’s solidarity with Christian communities that are under threat. He’s spent a good deal of time on the church’s work in places like Brazil and Tanzania, that is, in the overwhelmingly Christian regions of sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America that have become the focus of the Episcopal Church’s work, but, says he, “What about places where it is dangerous to be a Christian? If it’s dangerous to be a Christian somewhere, that must mean that it’s important that we be there, supporting the Christians who are in danger.”

So over the past several years Buck has been visiting such places on behalf of the Diocese of Virginia: Zimbabwe, where Anglicans have been under attack since 2007; Sudan, in the continuing conflict since its independence in 2011; Congo, where civil war has wracked the eastern part of the country; and, you guessed it, Pakistan and, in particular, Peshawar, capital of the province where the Taliban are centered.

Last January Buck visited me in Peshawar in the company of an interfaith activist, the Rev. Dr. Bill Sachs of the Center for Interfaith Reconciliation in Richmond, to explore how Virginia can support both the Diocese of Peshawar and Edwardes College in their continuing Christian witness in a polarized environment where the church’s presence is threatened. Their visit as two Wise Men from the West was much appreciated.

Nearness, engagement, relationship, companionship – that is the stuff of solidarity, which is the movement of mission.

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