Friday, March 27, 2015

Bearing with One Another - 11. Working Out Our Salvation

This is the last in a series of blog posts on bearing with one another –
especially when we find ourselves disagreeing with one another.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes,
“work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”

Fundamentally, this whole series has been about
an essential aspect of working out our salvation.

That we need salvation –
deliverance, healing, and forgiveness –
is evident enough.  

We are made for love and communion,
personal and social.

In spite of that,
we have seen through Jesus
that there is grace at the heart of all things.

With that grace we become aware that

With that grace we have also received mercy
God sympathizes with our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15),
forgives us (1 John 1:9),
and will finally heal all brokenness (Acts 3:21)

Human brokenness meets God’s grace at the foot of the cross
where we hear Jesus praying forgiveness upon us.
With the assurance of that forgiveness
we can dare to look at our own complicity in his death –
our own fingerprints on the hammer and nails –
and the myriad ways, great and small,
that we nail one another to the cross.

With that grace we can live lives worthy of that grace.

With that grace we are free. 

We are free to deny ourselves
and take up the cross
as we follow Jesus
in his way of self-sacrificial love.
     
We are free to accept that we are often wrong.

with open hearts and open hands.

We are free to live kindly and
resist the temptation to bear false witness against others.

We are free to work out our salvation.

The second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians describes what that looks like. It looks like Jesus who did not grasp at equality with God, but rather emptied and humbled himself for the sake of self-sacrificing love.

To live like that, like Jesus, is what it means to work out our salvation –
to live as though we know that grace is real.
We work out our salvation together in the Church by being
a community of mercy and delight.

And thus we seek to be of the same mind, having the same love,
being in full accord and of one mind.
We seek to do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit,
but in humility regard others as better than ourselves.
We seek look not to our own interests,
but to the interests of others.
We avoid murmuring and arguing,
so that you may be blameless and innocent.
To not live this way is to participate in
the crooked and perverse generation
            living contrary to the way of Jesus

Having received the mercy and delight of God’s grace in Jesus Christ,
we can work out our salvation
and shine like stars
in a world darkened by brokenness and division,
by meanness and violence,
by envy and enmity.

Let’s bear with one another and in this way fulfill the law of Christ.
(Galatians 6:2)

Let’s lead a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
(Ephesians 4:1-3)

Let’s bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven us, so we also must forgive. (Colossians 3:13)

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Bearing with One Another - 10. Interpreting One Another with Charity

Stephen Fowl teaches theology at Loyola College, Baltimore and is a member of the Cathedral of the Incarnation. He is also a member of the House of Bishops' Theology Committee. I am grateful to count him among my friends.

In his book, Engaging Scripture, Fowl writes about the habits of a charitable interpreter which are essential for any true engagement with scripture and other interpreters. Though he addresses charitable interpretation in that particular context, the practice of charitable interpretation is a virtue to cultivate more generally – with family and friends, at work, with other church members, in our larger political discourse, engaging one another on the internet – in any situation where we are likely to disagree with the way another person interprets things. Interpreting others with charity is a basic gospel discipline.

What follows is taken from Engaging Scripture:

When Christians’ convictions and practices regarding sin, forgiveness, repentance, and reconciliation are in good working order, the recognition of oneself as a sinner works to keep one’s eye single. Further, this recognition draws one into a collection of practices designed to restore, reconcile, and subsequently deepen one’s communion with God and others. p. 86

Short of the eschatological completion of the promises in Jeremiah 31 and 1 Corinthians 13 . . . Christians will need to engage scripture in the recognition that they will disagree with each other. Christians ought to expect that their scriptural interpretation will be marked by sustained disagreements about how best to interpret and embody scripture in any particular context. In fact the absence of such arguments would be a sign of a community’s ill health. p. 87

A charitable interpreter will both recognize interpretive differences and refuse temptations to reduce or rationalize those differences and disputes away. p. 88

Initially, it may be extremely difficult to make sense of the claims of others, particularly those most different from us. This, however, is a contingent problem which can be addressed through hard work and patience. Rather than assert that such differences render conversation and debate impossible, the charitable interpreter will begin the slow, often tedious process of learning the presumptions, conventions, and idioms needed to make others’ views intelligible. Charitable interpreters will resist the move to close off this activity prematurely; they will always recognize the provisionality of their work. That is, interpretive charity entails both a willingness to listen to differences and a willingness to hear those differences in their fullness. p. 89

[T]he real question facing the charitable interpreter concern how to address differences in interpretation. The first step is to note that all differences, all disagreements. Are only intelligible against a background of similarity and agreement. . . . Agreement may not be easy to display. For example, such things as the use of common vocabulary might actually obscure real differences and agreements. Charitable interpreters, then, may need to begin to address an interpretive dispute by exposing the nature and types of agreement lying beneath its surface. By doing this one sharpens and thereby clarifies the nature and type of disagreement. p. 90

A related habit of the charitable interpreter is the practice of maximizing the reasonableness of those with whom one differs. p. 90

[T]he charitable interpreter presumes that those who differ hold their differing views for good reasons and tries to display what those reasons are or were. p. 91

This entails that a charitable interpreter should deal with the strongest versions of opposing arguments. This may even require the charitable interpreter to recast opposing views to make them as strong as they can be. p. 91 (footnote 65)

[I]n any interpretive conflict, one’s ability to give a charitable account of a differing position is crucial to developing a superior position. As Alasdair MacIntyre has argued, in any interpretive conflict which is rationally resolved, the position which prevails will be the one that can show how it accounts for the strengths in alternative positions while avoiding the weaknesses in those alternatives. p. 91

[T]he presence of interpretive charity will not necessarily reduce interpretive disputes. Christians must recognize that disputes are constitutive of being part of a living tradition of people reading scripture in order to live holy lives and to worship God truthfully. Rather, interpretive charity is one element that shapes the ecclesial contexts in which we might then expect interpretive disputes to result in faithful living and truthful worship. p. 96


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Friday, March 20, 2015

Now it’s Your Turn

When I was a student at Indiana University in the late 1970's, there were a couple of sidewalk evangelists who regularly stationed themselves along a main campus thoroughfare and harangued students on their way to and from classes. They carried big floppy King James Bibles and dressed like Secret Service agents, complete with sunglasses. They would shout at the students, accusing them of all sorts of sins, threatening them with hell, and calling them to repent – real hell fire and brimstone stuff. Often, a group of students formed to harangue them back. The students would heckle them and call out challenging questions. It was quite a show.

There did not seem to be any real engagement. None of the students seemed to be genuinely interested in, let alone attracted to, the message the evangelists were presenting. As a young Christian, I mostly found it embarrassing. I usually walked pass the spectacle with my head down, hoping not to be associated with either side.

Once, though, as I sat under a tree within earshot of the debate, one of the evangelists said something that I could not ignore. He made the claim that, since he had become a Christian, he no longer sinned. This idea can be found the “holiness” tradition, mainly among some Pentecostal groups. But, having listened to this guy for some time, I didn’t believe it. 

Embarrassed or not, I was fool enough to rush in where angels fear to tread. I got up, walked through the ring of students and said, “Wait a minute.” I pointed out that in 1 John it says that if we say we are without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. The evangelist countered with another text. For a few minutes, with a crowd of students watching on, we played dueling Bible verses.

Suddenly, the evangelist looked at his watch, said it was time to go, packed up, and left. Most of the students began dispersing and I turned to go on my way. 

But, from behind me, I heard, “Wait.” 

I turned around and saw a small group of students remaining. 

One of them said, “Now it’s your turn.” 

They began to ask me questions about my faith. I attempted to answer as best I could and offer a different understanding of Jesus from what they had been getting. I was struck with the genuineness of their interest. These were some of the same students who had been heckling the evangelist just moments ago. But, like the Greeks who came to Philip in John 12, they wanted to see Jesus. They just couldn’t see him through the presentation of the evangelist.

That experience has stuck with me through the years. I know from experience that people are hungry for the good news of Jesus. I also know that many people inside and outside the church have been presented with versions of Jesus that have not sounded or looked like good news. 

If we want to share that good news we need to live and talk in ways that demonstrate that it really is good and that it really is news. If we want to make a defense of the hope that is in us we need to do so with gentleness and reverence toward those to whom we are making that defense.

Among other things, that means loving people as they are and engaging them respectfully, taking genuine interest in their own stories, their own hopes and fears, their own wisdom and understanding. Unless we do that, people are unlikely to care what we have to say anyway. And until we do that, any challenge we might present to their personal beliefs or morals will ring hollow. 

The same is likely true for whatever critiques we offer of social and political issues. That’s what the evangelists all those years ago did not understand. But, if we understand that and live it, there are people who want to see Jesus.


Now it’s your turn.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Bearing with One Another - 9. On Not Bearing False Witness

In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther wrote this about the Eighth of the Ten Commandments,

You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.

Theologian, Bruce Marshall, elaborates,

If Luther’s interpretation is correct, the eighth commandment is an epistemic principle [epistemology is the study of how we know things]: it has to do with figuring out when we have found the truth about our neighbor. When it comes to the assessment of our neighbor’s words and deeds, we should ‘find ways of excusing him, speak well of him and make the best of everything’ – or as it is often rendered, ‘put the best construction on everything (Small Catechism I.16).

This is not just a rule of etiquette. We cannot keep this commandment by first discovering what we suppose to be the hard truth about another’s words and deeds, and then politely keeping quiet about, or softening up the rough edges. The commandment not to bear false witness surely cannot be an injunction to dissemble.

Rather, obedience to this commandment has to enter into our very effort to discern the truth about our neighbor in the first place; we cannot suppose that we have got the truth about our neighbor’s words and deeds until we are sure we have put the best possible construction on them. In just this sense, presumably, the apostle Paul enjoins us to speak the truth in love, and warns against ‘evil talk,’ namely that which fails to build up and give grace to those who hear (Ephesians 4:15, 29).

If we sense a conflict between what we want to say about our neighbor and that kindness and tenderness of heart without which we grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30, 32) we have a sure sign that we have so far failed to find the truth, and have fastened onto falsehoods of our own invention.
(quoted by Eugene Rogers in Sexuality and the Christian Body, p. 33)

“We cannot suppose that we have got the truth about our neighbor’s words and deeds until we are sure we have put the best possible construction on them.” This sounds wise and faithful to me. It also sounds hard. At least I find it to be difficult at times. It requires discipline and practice. But when we engage one another – especially when we disagree about things about which we care deeply – it is what it means to bear with one another and speak the truth in love, with gentleness and reverence toward the other.

Recently, I came across this from philosopher Daniel Dennett on how to make an argument or critique another person’s position with kindness:

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.

2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

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Friday, March 13, 2015

Bearing with One Another - 8. Only What is Said Kindly is True

Here are some evocative observations from Karl Barth in a letter to a man in Switzerland shortly before Barth’s death:

Basel, 26 November 1968

You very kindly sent me your writing along with an accompanying letter. I thank you for this but also have to admit quite openly that I took no pleasure in reading it.

As opposed to what you learned from the other side, I have to say that precisely “in essentials” I am not at one with you and that I do not expect this publication of yours to have any salutary effect.

Why not? Because I do not detect in your work the slightest trace of what is called in holy scripture the peace of God that passes all understanding.

You say many correct things. But what is correct is not always true. Only what is said kindly is true. You do not speak kindly in a single line.

You utter a powerful No on all sides. It is indeed necessary to say No too. But the right No can only be one which derives from and is upheld by an even more powerful Yes. I hear you say only No.

You accuse. That, too, has to be done. But, again, if this is Christian accusation, it has to be enclosed in the promise, in the glad tidings of God’s grace. In you it is naked accusation.

You demand that others repent. Sometimes one must dare to do this. But only he may do so who himself repents and lives in repentance. You preach down from your high horse, righteous among the unrighteous, pure among the impure.

Dear Mr. N. N., I am in my eighty-third year, I am ahead of you by many years along with their experience of life, and I can only say: It cannot be done as you are trying to do it in your book. A Christian should not speak as you do either to his fellow-Christians or to his fellow-men nor should the church speak to the world.

. . . I concede you mean well. But in my serious opinion you must mean well in a better way.

This has me wondering (and I do not have the philosophical or theological background to do more than wonder). I wonder: If God is love (1 John 4:8)  and love is kind (1 Corinthians 13:4), might we say with Barth that mere facts, however correct, do not fully participate in the Truth unless they are expressed with kindness and toward loving ends? And unless we are able to do so, can we claim to know what we are talking about? How might the answers to these questions inform our speech to and about one another and, for that matter, the rest of creation?

Sometimes hard truths need to be spoken and correction given. The discipline of doing so kindly will enable us to "mean well in a better way". When we disagree with one another or seek to correct one another, however significant or insignificant the issue, how might we enclose what we say in the promise, in the glad tidings of God’s grace? If we know that promise and have experienced that grace, we are free to offer our perspective – and receive that of the other – with kindness. We will then participate more fully in the Truth.

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love. (Ephesians 4:15-16)


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Monday, March 9, 2015

Bearing with One Another - 7. Free to be Vulnerable in Love

At the foot of the cross there is freedom.

At the foot of the cross we are free
          because we hear Jesus say,
                   “Father, forgive them,
                             they don’t know what they are doing.”
                  
At the foot of the cross, we are free
to know ourselves to be truly seen
          and understood
by God in the person of Jesus

At the foot of cross we are free
to know ourselves to be frail and fallible.

At the foot of the cross we are free
to know that we are guilty –
our fingerprints are on the hammer and nails,
We are complicit in the sinful, broken mess of a world
          where we nail one another to the cross.
We are the reason Jesus hung on the cross.

At the foot of the cross, we are free
to know ourselves to be forgiven;
we know ourselves to be loved with infinite love.

At the foot of the cross we are free –
          set free from guilt, shame, and fear

At the foot of the cross we are free
          to commend our spirits into the hands of God
                   assured that God will not let go.

At the foot of the cross we are free
to love as Jesus loved us,
to love with vulnerable, self-sacrificial abandon.

At the foot of the cross we are free
          to forgive as we have been forgiven.

I encourage you to watch this video by Brene Brown who is a member of Christ Church Cathedral in Houston:



 Here are a couple of quotes about vulnerability and love:

“To read the biblical narratives is to encounter a God who is, first of all, love (1 John 4:8). Love involves a willingness to put oneself at risk, and God is in fact vulnerable in love, vulnerable even to great suffering. God’s self-revelation is Jesus Christ, and, as readers encounter him in the biblical stories, he wanders with nowhere to place his head, washes the feet of his disciples like a servant, and suffers and dies on a cross–condemned by the authorities of his time, undergoing great pain, “despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity” (Isaiah 53:3). Just this Jesus is the human face of God, not merely a messenger or a prophet but God’s own self come as self-revelation to humankind. If God becomes human in just this way, moreover, then that tells us something of how we might seek our own fullest humanity–not in quests of power and wealth and fame but in service, solidarity with the despised and rejected, and willingness to be vulnerable in love.”
― William Placher, Narratives of a VulnerableGod

“There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.
― C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

The freedom to be vulnerable in love is key to any relationship and any community. It is key to our being able to bear with one another when we disagree. Jesus sets us free for that kind of love.

We are freed to be less certain, less defensive; freed to be more open, more vulnerable. We are freed to speak the truth about ourselves and then about one another in love.

Jesus then said to those who had believed in him, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.
(John 8:31-32, 36)


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Monday, March 2, 2015

Bearing with One Another - 6. Free to be Wrong

All human life is marked by frailty, fallibility, brokenness, and sin. None of us is immune. None of us is innocent. Yet, the God we know through Jesus Christ is always offering the healing and forgiveness of his merciful love and calling us into fullness of life, love, peace, and joy. And thus we are free.

Among other things we are free to be wrong. Before you read any further, I encourage you to watch this video:


In this brief lecture, Kathryn Schulz, poses the question, “How does it feel to be wrong?” We all know the feeling. It is usually unpleasant – embarrassing, shameful, etc. It is a feeling we try to avoid. But, Schulz points out that that feeling is not the feeling of being wrong, but the feeling of realizing we are wrong. Before we realize we are wrong, being wrong feels just like being right.

She goes on to point out that while we all acknowledge that we could be wrong in theory, we mostly avoid thinking about the possibility we ourselves might actually be wrong.

It is unsettling to concede that right now there are things about which I am convinced I am right, but about which I am in fact wrong. Of course, if I realize I am wrong, I hope I will adopt a more correct view. But, at the moment I cannot think of a single thing I know that I know I am wrong about. Can you?

Schulz observes that we are, “Trapped in a little bubble of feeling very right about everything.”

Assuming we are right about everything is, of course, presumptuous. But, trusting too much in the feeling of being on the right side of anything is also dangerous. It is dangerous to our own spirits because it is an expression of the deadly sin of pride. And it is dangerous because attachment to our own rightness causes us to treat each other badly – a failure of charity which is also deadly to the spirit.

Given our habitual assumption of our own rightness – morally, politically, religiously, professionally, scientifically, or whatever – we are faced with a problem – how do we explain all those people who don’t see it our way?

Schulz suggests that we typically make three “unfortunate assumptions” about those who do not agree that we are right. We assume they are:

1. Ignorant – they don’t know the facts that we know

2. Idiots – if it becomes clear that they know the facts, but still resist our rightness, we assume they are not smart enough to draw the right conclusion from those facts.

3. Evil – if it is clear they know the facts and are actually quite smart, we resort to the assumption that they are deliberately misconstruing things for malevolent purposes.

I would add two more unfortunate assumptions that seem pretty common:

4. Fearful – those who disagree with me are afraid of what it would mean for them if I am right.

5. Biased – informed, bright, and well-meaning though they might be, those who don’t see things my way must be blinded by biases that prevent them from coming to the proper conclusion.

It is not hard to find examples of these unfortunate assumptions at work. They are pervasive in our political discourse. And each of them shows up regularly in church debates.

The problem is it is always easy to see how those with whom we disagree make these assumptions. It is harder to acknowledge the same assumptions in those with whom we agree. And it is almost impossible to admit them in ourselves.

This gets tricky because there are indeed people who comment or act while ignorant of the facts. And some people are brighter than others. And there are people who manipulate information for selfish gain.

But it is also true (unless I am wrong) that some configuration of all five of the above assumptions is true of each of us all the time.

Humility

That is why cultivating humility is so essential

"Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge"
(1 Corinthians 8:1-2)

If we want to resist pride and cultivate humility, we will accept the reality that we are wrong. We will look to our own ignorance, lack of intelligence, maliciousness, fear, and prejudice. And confess them. We will take to heart John Calvin's warning, “There is no worse screen to block out the Spirit than confidence in our own intelligence.”

This does not mean everything is up for grabs. It does not mean that everyone’s guess is as good as anyone else’s. It does not mean that we ought not to give due deference to those who, due to study and experience, can speak with more authority in areas of their expertise (always recognizing that they still could be wrong). 

Within the Church, we continue to recognize authorities like scripture and tradition (about which we sometimes disagree in particulars). And, in confessing the Creed, we acknowledge that within the Church some questions are settled.

But humility does mean holding what we think we know with a certain lightness – refusing to presume to grasp equality with God (Philippians 2:3-8).


It does mean we will engage others with deep humility.

If we want to live in charity, we will resist the temptation to bear false witness against our neighbor. Rather than making the “unfortunate assumptions” about those with whom we disagree, we will begin by assuming the opposite of those assumptions.

And we will embrace with sincerity the possibility that we are the ones who are wrong.

I suggest that Christians are both bound to practice such humility and charity and freed to do so. We are bound by the commands of our Lord to do so. We are freed to do so by the fundamental reality of grace  God's unshakable love and mercy  that frees us from the obsession with being right and the fear of being wrong. 

This frees us to bear with one another when we disagree. This is true whether those disagreements are due to differences of personality or perspective. It is true whether those disagreements are about relatively minor things or things that cut close to the bone.

Perhaps this is what it means to speak the truth in love. (Ephesians 4:15).

1. The truth – as best I understand it and sincerely confessing that I could very well be wrong

2. In love – with gentleness and reverence toward those who I am trying to persuade (1 Peter 3:15). In love – which, by any Christian account, is more important than being right.



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