Wednesday, October 18, 2017

On Prayers for Healing

One of the most typical actions of Jesus was healing people of various ailments and diseases and even death. Sometimes, that included exorcism. It is important to note that ultimately his healings and exorcisms were not the point. Rather, it is what they pointed to – the in-breaking in the person of Jesus of God's kingdom promising the healing and restoration of all things (Luke 11:20, Acts 3:31Jesus did not heal every sick person in ancient Palestine. But, but he did heal many as a demonstration that his presence anticipated the coming kingdom of God.

Jesus' followers are encouraged to similarly pray for healing. We pray regularly in these word or words like them for God to “comfort and heal all those who suffer in body, mind, or spirit; give them courage and hope in their troubles, and bring them joy of your salvation” (Prayers of the People, form IV, Book of Common Prayer, p. 389). Many of our churches hold regular healing prayer services. Some others offer prayers and the laying on of hands for healing at some point during the regular Sunday Eucharist. Others have members who belong to the Order of St. Luke which is dedicated to healing ministry. What do we expect when we pray for God to heal someone?

When thinking of prayers for healing, we want to avoid presuming too much on the one hand and assuming too little on the other. We do not presume to have God figured out such that our prayers bind God to particular responses, whether healing or otherwise. Nor do we assume that God cannot, or will not, act. Rather, prayer (for healing and in general) is our placing the totality of our lives in the reality of God's mercy and grace where all is gift. 

Therefore, we pray with expectancy, believing that God hears, that God cares, and that God responds. How that "works" is wrapped in the mystery of God's hidden wisdom. Miracles happen, but we cannot control their occurrence. It is not something we control by getting the formula right. That is the difference between prayer and magic.

I had a friend in college who had cerebral palsy. Every now and then, someone would suggest to him that if he prayed with more faith he would be able to get up out of his wheelchair and be healed. I have another friend who was told when his son’s mental illness was not healed that it was likely because of some secret, unconfessed sin in his family. Such attempts to explain why healing doesn’t happen in the way expected, suggest a magical notion of prayer.

I wonder if such attempts to explain the apparent lack of healing aren’t motivated by a desire to protect a certain way of understanding God – as a sort of lucky rabbit’s foot there to protect us from all harm. There must be some “reason” why someone who prays to God does not receive the healing they desire. Otherwise, how can I hope God will deliver me from the changes and chances of life? This way of thinking not only reduces prayer to a magic formula, it suggests a God who is parsimonious with his mercies. But, the God we know in Jesus Christ is mysterious, not stingy.

Part of God's generosity revealed in his good creation is the knowledge an skill of doctors and the availability of medicine (Wisdom of ben Sirach 38:1-15). Praying for God's healing does not preclude availing ourselves of these. Rather our prayers are often that God will work through them. 

We do not pray for healing because we believe that God is supposed to remove every tragic element of life according to our timetable. Short of his Kingdom, we all will die in need of healing and forgiveness. Even those who can claim spectacular healings of one kind or another still live in the reality of human brokenness and sin. Everyone Jesus healed, including Lazarus, continued in this veil of tears until they experienced whatever terminal illness or accident that took their life. As with them, whatever healing we experience, as with whatever forgiveness we experience, is but a foretaste of that ultimate wholeness God has promised us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Healing prayer is one way we seek to enter into that promise and place ourselves in its light. 

Because we are Easter people, we believe the restoration of creation has begun in the death and resurrection of Jesus and the giving of the Holy Spirit. We do not presume that God must respond in the ways we want or that there is a formula by which we can induce God to act in particular ways. But, in light of the resurrection, we can assume God acts in our lives. We live into that promise and pray and hope for anticipatory healing and forgiveness as we await with expectancy the fullness and wholeness of resurrection and the restoration of all things.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Evil Lies Close at Hand

Some thoughts on this Sunday's Epistle, Romans7:15-25a.

At the end of the 1700's, France was in a bad way. Most people lived in abject poverty while the aristocratic few lived lives of luxury. The wealthy had all the power and used it to oppress the masses. Injustice was rife. To make matters worse, the church seemed to be in league with the aristocracy and supported their "divine right" to rule. A movement arose to oppose this situation.

That movement led to the French Revolution. One of its leaders was an idealistic young man named Maximilien Robspierre. He desired to turn things upside-down, to right the wrongs, to bring justice to the people. The French Revolution did turn things upside-down. The old unjust regime was overthrown and a new one set up in its place. The new regime was to be founded on justice, liberty, equality, and humanity.

But, after only a couple of years, things began to go terribly wrong. The Reign of Terror began as one faction battled another and each sought to eliminate any opposition, real or imagined, against the new government. Robspierre was one of the instigators of the Reign of Terror. He eventually became one of its victims, executed on the guillotine. He had intended good. He had intended justice. But evil was close at hand. So has it been with the good intentions of every revolution since. And so it has been with every opposition to revolution since.

This story gets at what I think Paul is on about in the seventh chapter of his letter to the church in Rome:
“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.”

Paul is not just pointing out a moral truism about our weak wills. This is not, “I didn’t intend to eat that last slice of cheesecake, but then I did” or “I meant to get up early and go to the gym, but turned off the alarm and decided to sleep in instead.” Our problem, as Paul sees it, is more serious than that. Is it the more serious idea that God demands perfect obedience to the rules of the law, but we are incapable of that perfection and thus under judgment? I do not think it is that either. Paul sees our problem as more radical and serious than even that.

So what is Paul saying here? To get at that, we need to know what question he is trying to answer. If we look at the section of Romans leading up to Chapter 7 we get an idea. In verse 7, just before our reading today, Paul asks, "What then should we say? That the law is sin?" That's the question Paul is trying to answer here. Paul had proclaimed freedom from the law. Therefore, some might think he believes the law to be bad. He was in fact accused of saying this. Is the law sin? "By no means," Paul writes. He believed the same God who sent Jesus also gave the law – not some abstract moral rule, but the Torah of Israel. The Torah was the good gift of the gracious God of the Jews – Paul's God. What troubled Paul was that even the law turned out to be subject to sin. The law, given as a corrective to human sinfulness, had turned out to be subject to sin just like everything else. Sin proved more powerful than the law, such that the law was incapable of saving us from our bondage to sin.

Our problem, according to Paul, is not the truism that, because of our weakness, we cannot keep the Torah. Elsewhere he boldly claims to have been blameless in obeying the Torah (See Philippians 3:6). Paul was not burdened by a guilty conscience due to his weak will or his inability sufficiently obey the law. The problem was that his very devotion to the Torah, had led him to oppose God’s will, even when he was most zealous in pursuing what he was sure was God’s will. He was zealous for the Torah. In his zeal, he had signed up to oppose those who he thought were corrupting the people and leading them away from the Torah and from God. He set out to stop the new Jesus movement which he was convinced was opposed to the way of God. But, on his way to Damascus to deal with followers of that movement, something happened. The risen Jesus appeared to him and asked, "Why do you persecute me?" That knocked Paul of his horse and began the rearranging of his thinking. He was now convinced that Jesus was the key to God's plan. That meant that the very thing he had been opposing on behalf of God's law turned out to be the very fulfillment of God's law. The problem as Paul sees it is that sin is so radical and pervasive that even the Torah itself – the very gift of God – can be turned against God. He found "sin working death in me through what is good."

The problem is not that we can’t satisfy the accounting office in heaven. That is obvious enough. And faithful Jews like Paul had means of addressing that within the Torah itself. The problem is that sin is so pervasive that we are unable to extricate ourselves from its effects. "We are sold into slavery under sin." Our problem is not that we are not obedient enough. Our problem is that we are in bondage to sin and sin permeates everything, including our obedience. Not only will our obedience to the law not save us, even our best efforts are permeated by sin. “I find it a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.” That is the key phrase in Romans 7 (and a key phrase in the whole New Testament) which clues us in to the point Paul is making. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. But that is not for the reason we usually think. It is not that I don't get around to following through with my intentions. It is that, even in my best intentions – when I am quite sure I am right and pursuing God’s will – evil lies close at hand. That is because God’s will, ultimately, is that we love with the indiscriminate and perfect love with which God loves us. But, our love is always infected with sin.

The Church rightly intended the good of defending the truth of the Gospel. But, doing so it resorted to unmerciful actions (e.g., the Inquisition and the Albigensian Crusade) that actually contradicted Jesus who ordered us to love our enemies and to be as perfect in mercy as is the one he called Father. And as the story about Robspierre shows, this is not just a religious problem. In the pursuit of justice, the French Revolution and others (Russian, Chinese, Cuban, Cambodian, etc.) have become the very injustice they set out to redress. In the name of freedom and security, America and other democracies have too often thwarted the freedom of others and brought insecurity to others. Closer to home, how often have we found our intention to love those near and dear to us have been experienced as problematic by those we wanted to love? Or how often has our zeal for obeying God, pursuing the truth, or justice led us to treat others with something short of mercy, patience, or generosity? 

It appears to be a law of humanity bound by sin that when we want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. We are slaves to that law which is the law of sin. That law is more powerful that the law of the Torah. We cannot save ourselves or deliver ourselves from this law. No amount of positive thinking, higher consciousness, or beefed up will-power can save us. We are "sold into slavery under sin." We are unable to free ourselves from our bondage. We cannot rescue ourselves. We need saving from outside ourselves. That might well lead to despair. "Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me?"

Paul's reply is, "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" Christ comes rescue us from our slavery under sin. In his life, death, and resurrection Christ breaks through our bondage. Christ comes to rescue us from the power of sin. Christ comes to rescue us from our own good intentions  and those of others. Christ comes to clean house. Christ invites us to a different kind of freedom, the freedom to follow him ever deeper into the heart of God who is Love. He calls us to be transformed into his likeness and to be about the mission of the kingdom of God. He only asks that we allow him to have his way with us by the power of his Spirit. He calls us to live with humility, holding even our firmest convictions about what is right and true and just – even our firmest convictions about God’s will – a little more lightly lest we fall into the merciless evil that is always close at hand in our every good intention. We must still act. We must still pursue the right the good and the true. We must still seek to love God and neighbor. But we must do so always humbly remembering our tendency to corrupt our every good intention.

Still more, we are called to remember, as Paul encourages us to remember in the following chapter of Romans, that once God has ahold of us, it is no longer about our good intentions, or our ability to be faithful to the law or anything else. It is about the faithfulness of Jesus. And his hold on us is always greater than our hold on him.

"Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!"

Saturday, June 17, 2017

It is the Worshiping Life that can Transform the World

William Temple (1881-1944) as an important theologian and bishop in the Church of England in the first half of the 20th century. He was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1942 until his death in 1944. Here is something he wrote on the connection between worship and engaging in the world:

"This detachment to which the Church is called, but which Churchmen have seldom attained, is not a hermit-like withdrawal from the world; on the contrary it is the way by which the Church may most influence the world.  For the way to spiritual power over the world lies through worship and sanctification.  If the Church is to supply to Christian people the quality enabling them to convert the world, they (or at least a large proportion of them) must be Churchmen before they are citizens, recognizing that their highest duty and privilege is to worship God made known in Jesus Christ, to quicken their consciences by His holiness, to feed their minds on His truth, to purify their imaginations by His beauty, to open their hearts to His love, to submit their wills to His purpose.  Worship includes all those elements.  Worship so understood is the activity whereby and wherein men become more fully incorporated into the Body of Christ, thus enabling the Church to become its true self and to do its true work.

Of course, such worship is a continuous and lifelong enterprise.  To 'go to Church' and there sit, stand, and kneel while other people say things and sing things may be better than nothing, for it is an act of witness; but it is not certain that it is better than nothing, but such a Churchgoer lowers the temperature of the whole congregation.  It is not possible to worship truly while the daily life is far from God; and it is not possible to bring the daily life much nearer to God except by the best worship of which we are capable.

Thus worship is the distinctive and specially characteristic activity of the Church; but then worship includes all life and the moments spent in concentrated worship, whether 'in Church' or elsewhere, are the focusing points of the sustaining and directing energy of the worshiper's whole life.

It would strike many people as absurd to say that the cure for unemployment is to be found through worship; but it would be quite true.

If then the Christian citizen is to make his Christianity tell upon his politics, his business, his social enterprise, he must be a Churchman - consciously belonging to the worshiping fellowship and sharing its worship - before he is a citizen; he must bring the concerns of his citizenship and his business before God, and go forth to them carrying God's inspiration with him.

This is all expressed in the Eucharist.  There we bring familiar forms of economic wealth, which is always the product of man's labor exercised upon God's gifts, and offer them as symbols of our earthly life.  If God had not given to the seed its life and to the soil the quality to nurture it, there would be neither harvest nor bread.  Equally, if man had not ploughed the soil and scattered the seed, there would be neither harvest nor bread.  Bread is a product of man's labor exercised upon God's gift for the satisfaction of man's need.  So is wine.  There are our 'oblations' at the 'offertory' - often also accompanied by 'alms' expressing the charity which seeks to share with others the good things which God has given us.

These representatives of all earthly 'goods' we offer to God in union with the act of Christ at the Last Supper when, in preparatory interpretation of His death, He took the bread, called it His Body, and broke it - took the wine, called it His Blood and gave it.  Because we have offered our 'earthly' goods to God, He gives them back to us as heavenly goods, binding us into union with Christ in that self-offering which is His royalty, so that we give not only our goods but ourselves, and thus become strengthened as members of His Body to do His will in the various departments of our life.

The Eucharist divorced from life loses reality; life devoid of worship loses direction and power.  It is the worshiping life that can transform the world."
– William Temple, Citizen and Churchman (1941)

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Karl Barth & Dorothy Sayers

Several years ago, I attended a fascinating lecture by the Rev. Dr. David McNutt at the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College on “A Surprising Correspondence: Dorothy L. Sayers and Karl Barth on Artistic Creativity.”

Sometime in the late 1930’s, one of Karl Barth’s theology students from England gave him a collection of theological essays by Dorothy Sayers. It turns out Barth was already familiar with Sayers having learned English partly through reading her detective novels. But, he liked the essays enough to write her an appreciative letter which led to a brief exchange of letters between the two in 1939 just as WW II was breaking out.

Given Barth’s strict Reformed theology and Sayers’ Anglo-Catholicism, it seems an unlikely correspondence. As one might imagine, while Barth was mostly appreciative of Sayers’ articulation of the Christian vision, he was not wholly uncritical. For example, he suggests she has a (very Anglican) tendency toward semi-Pelagianism. Still, he appreciated her work enough to translate into German and publish in 1959 – two years after her death – two of her essays on Christianity. In the introduction to those essays, he wrote:

She vigorously made the message of the gospel her own in breathless astonishment about its central content and in a way that was open to the world but undaunted and quick-witted without any hint of apology – but above all: joyfully and in a way bringing joy, she produced stimulating work, and regardless of what one might think of its individual statements, we may be thankful.

I pray that God will raise up Christians in our day, lay and ordained, about whom something similar can be said.

In one of her letters to Barth in 1939, Sayers wrote of her own work:

All I try to do is tell people that the creeds are not arbitrary formulae; that they were intended to mean something, and do still mean something.”

Again, one might pray for a reclaiming of such confidence among preachers and teachers of the Church.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Centered on Jesus: The Story and Other Stories

Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998) was a missionary and bishop in South India. He is a favorite of mine. In describing his experience in evangelizing people of other faiths, Newbigin said,
I approach them by saying I would like to tell you my beautiful stories about God and I would like for you to tell me your beautiful stories about God.

It is a wonderful approach exhibiting a welcome humility, generosity, and hospitality. It acknowledges that whatever beautiful truth we Christians have to offer the world; we are bound to find beauty and truth elsewhere.

I have been inspired, informed and edified by many of the beautiful stories of other faiths. I have read many of the scriptures and stories of other faiths. I believe that the Holy Spirit sings in and through many of them. We do well to carefully and respectfully learn from their wisdom.

It is tempting to leave it at that. It is tempting to claim that all these stories along with the ones Lesslie Newbigin told about Jesus and Christianity are equally beautiful and equally true. It is a popular approach. But it does not actually work.

When we try to claim all stories are equally beautiful, we are just ignoring or denying the fact that we actually have in the back of our minds another overarching story that we consider even more beautiful and that incorporates all those lesser stories. We use our own overarching story to measure the relative beauty and truth of other stories. There is no escaping this.

Christians believe that all creation is part a central beautiful story spoken by a three-personed God who is love. This story centers on the self-emptying incarnation of God in the person of Jesus who entered into the mess we have made of the world and ourselves coming alongside us to redeem, reconcile, and restore all things. It is a story of forgiveness, healing, and transformation. Christians believe that to be the most true and most beautiful story. All other beautiful stories participate more or less in that story and are measured by it. To be a Christian is to have your story caught up in that story, transformed by that story and defined by it.

That is the approach of Justin Martyr, one of the earliest Christian theologians. He died around 150 AD. In one of his theological works (The First Apology), he wrote of the logos spermaticos, which is Greek for "the Seed of the Word." Justin suggested that if the world was created through the Word (John 1, Colossians 1) then we should expect to see the seed of that Word planted by the Holy Spirit in all cultures. Echoes and fragments of the good story that is the gospel are everywhere.

Christians do not have to embrace an exclusive version of truth that can learn from no one else. Christians would do well to look more carefully at the beauty of other stories and be open to learning from them. But still we claim that the story of Jesus Christ is at the center of all. He is the Way, the Truth, the Life.

It was always Lesslie Newbigin's hope that in exchanging beautiful stories others would be persuaded to see this and make the story of Jesus their own. We claim humbly, reverently, and gently if we are to be true to the story (1 Peter 3:13-16) – that Jesus remains Lord and the measure of all other stories.

That is not just the case with other "religious" stories. It includes the beautiful stories we are told by Hollywood, Wall Street, Madison Avenue, and the Pentagon. It includes the beautiful stories of America and every other nation-state that would claim our ultimate loyalty. It includes the beautiful stories of every political party. And it includes the beautiful stories we tell ourselves to justify ourselves or to affirm our own prejudices. The idea that all stories are equal, actually serves the purposes of these other powerful stories and leaves them unquestioned. The story of Jesus challenges them all.

Here is another quote from Newbigin:
I more and more find the precious part of each day to be the thirty or forty minutes I spend each morning before breakfast with the Bible. All the rest of the day I am bombarded with the stories that the world is telling about itself. I am more and more skeptical about these stories. As I take time to immerse myself in the story that the Bible tells, my vision is cleared and I see things in another way. I see the day that lies ahead in its place in God’s story.

To be centered in Jesus Christ does not mean that Christians have all the truth there is to have or that we can learn nothing from those who have beautiful stories of their own. We should engage others and their beautiful stories with humility and openness.  But, we will measure all stories – including some told by Christians – by the Story of Jesus.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Delight – Every Blade of Grass

I mowed my lawn yesterday and was reminded of this poem by Walt Whitman:

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full
                        hands;
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it
                        is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful
                        green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we
                        may see and remark, and say Whose?
– Walt Whitman, A Song of Myself from Leaves of Grass

I am taken with Whitman’s image of grass as a “scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped.” Think about that next time you smell mowed grass. Something as common grass (at least in the American Midwest) bears “the owner’s name someway in the corners” if we just pay attention. Of course, this is not just true of grass. As John Calvin said,

There is not one little blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice.

All of creation is the handkerchief of the Lord designedly dropped in God’s ongoing courtship with each of us.

All this thinking about grass reminded me of this wonderful line from the Talmud, the ancient compilation of Jewish moral and ethical debate:


What a lovely image. And, again, this is not just about grass, but about God’s intimate care and delight in every aspect of creation. One of the Hebrew words translated “delight” in the Old Testament is chaphets (חָפֵץ) the root meaning of which is “to bend over.” With delight, God bends over each blade of grass and all of creation whispering “Grow, grow.” May we take the time to pay attention with all our senses to rejoice and delight in the wonder of creation, large and small. May we receive it all with gratitude as a handkerchief of the Lord, a scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped. bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners.

And this is true as well of each human being – more so as humans are that part of creation made in the image of God and to whom God has entrusted the earth (Psalm 115:16). How would it be if we engaged one another as a “gift and remembrancer designedly dropped” in our paths to draw us deeper into the life and love of God?

Jesus said, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 18:10). That makes we wonder if maybe it is not just every blade of grass that has its angel that bends over it in delight. Each of these little ones – every child – has its own angel bending over it whispering, “Grow, grow.” I suspect that does not end when a child is fully grown. If there is an angel bending over you even now in the name of God’s delight whispering, “Grow, grow,” what new growth might it be drawing you toward?



Monday, April 24, 2017

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

Sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Easter

Thomas knew Jesus was dead. And a large chunk of Thomas had died with him. Jesus had inspired Thomas. Jesus had set Thomas’ heart on fire. But that fire was extinguished on the cross. And his heart is left cold as ashes.

Jesus was dead. No wonder he was reluctant to believe the others. Wouldn’t you be? No wonder he wanted to see for himself. Not just see, but feel. “I want to poke my finger in the holes in his hands before I’ll believe.” Thomas has been known ever since as “Doubting Thomas”. But, while it is important to recognize the reality of doubt (see Little Floaty Things That Say "No"), I am not sure it is fair to say that that the guy whose commitment to Jesus was so strong he was prepared to die with him (see John11:16). Thomas had put all his faith and hope in Jesus. Now, Jesus was dead. Thomas had hoped much and that hope had died. It was not going to be resurrected by hearsay.

Then it happened. Jesus appeared to Thomas. He offered to let him feel the wounds. It doesn’t say whether Thomas actually did, but it doesn’t matter. His faith and hope were rekindled and he was changed forever – “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus, whose absence he had felt so keenly, was present. Thomas and the others had sensed and believed that Jesus was special before. But you get the feeling in the resurrection stories that they were encountering something new, something so awesome, they could barely speak of it. In some versions, they don’t. Encountering the Risen Lord changed them and changed them and how they understood God and the world

But Thomas and the others got to see it for themselves. What about us? We weren’t there to witness the resurrection appearances. We can’t touch the wounds. We have the records of the appearances in the Bible, exciting and somewhat confused, as you’d expect under the circumstances. We can be grateful for them. We can read them and allow the Holy Spirit to nourish our spirits through them. We can study them and try to figure out if it happened this way or that. But sometimes it feels long ago and far away.

Still, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Why? Why are we blessed. We who believe in the Resurrection though we have not seen like Thomas and the others?

Because, the Resurrection is not, primarily, about something that happened 2,000 years and half a world away. It is about the presence of the Risen One in our lives and in our world here and now. It is about the promise of resurrection in our lives here and now. And it is about the promise of that final Resurrection of which Easter is but the foretaste.

The Risen Christ is present here and now. Christ has become present to us in a new way through the Holy Spirit and we can know that Presence. Jesus is risen and is now present in every area of our lives; in our work and our play as well as our worship and our prayer. His presence means that the division of life into the sacred and the secular is a false division. Everything everywhere is filled with the presence of the Risen Christ.

“Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe.” It is the promise of the presence of resurrection in our lives here and now. Because we believe he rose, we dare to hope for resurrection. To believe in resurrection is to believe no situation is hopeless, no relationship is beyond redemption, no just cause is ultimately lost. It is to believe that our lost hopes and dreams are never really lost. Because they are now filled with the presence of the Risen Christ, every disappointment, every discouragement, every loss can become a reminder of the promise of resurrection by which we can start again. Each is a sort of death from which we can rise to new life through Christ. And the ashes in our hearts become fire again.

“Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe.” Christ’s resurrection is the promise and foretaste of the final resurrection. That promise is the foundation of our hope for the future. We have a glimpse of how the story is going to end and that opens the future to us. We have the assurance that, all evidence to the contrary, the world will not end in doom and gloom. On Easter, Jesus Christ defeated doom and gloom. The story of creation ends in resurrection, the kingdom of God when there will be love, peace, and joy, healing, harmony and wholeness.

When I was a child, I remember sometimes at family gatherings after things had settled down but people were not ready to leave, we would watch television. We often watched “Lassie.” Remember Lassie, the show about a clever dog that regularly saved the day? I remember there would always come a point in the story where lassie was in such a fix you could see how she was going to get out of this one. Then there would be a commercial break. At that point, my Uncle LaVonne, who like most uncles enjoyed teasing his nieces and nephews would say, I don’t know, but it doesn’t look good for Lassie. I don’t think she’s going to get out of this one. I think Lassie is done for this time. This is probably the last episode of Lassie.” We youngsters would then be distraught as we contemplated the doom of Lassie. As we got older we began to catch on; no matter how bad things looked or how dire my uncle’s predictions, we knew that after the commercial break Lassie would find a way to save the day and all would be well. Once we knew that, it did not matter how bad things got for Lassie, we always knew how the story would end.

The resurrection of Jesus is the foretaste of the final restoration of all things when all will be well. The story is not over yet. The story of the world and our stories will take many turns and involve some close calls, some too close. Indeed, each of our stories will lead to our own deaths. But, death is like a commercial break – we die trusting that the story will resume and in the end all will be well.

Through it all, the Risen One is present with us. And because we believe God raised Jesus from the dead, we anticipate the consummation of that work in the final Resurrection of all creation. As theologian Helmut Thielicke said,
This means a completely new attitude toward the future; no longer is the future a befogged landscape into which I peer anxiously because all kinds of obscure perils are brewing there for me. No, everything has changed: we do not know what is coming, but we know who is coming. And the one who possesses the last hour no longer needs to fear the next minute.


The one who possesses the last hour no longer needs to fear the next minute. That is the promise of resurrection. In the end, we who have not seen yet have come to believe will stand in the presence of the Risen Christ and be able to join Thomas without any doubt and say, “My Lord and my God!”

Saturday, April 15, 2017

No More Sacrifices – the God of Easter and the Death of Death

"If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God." (Colossians 3:1-3)

You have died. You have been raised. with Christ. Your life is hidden with Christ. You are thus dead to Death and its power. You are free.

In the death and resurrection of Jesus, Death itself was mortally wounded. Jesus’ death is the death of Death. The great Puritan theologian, John Owen, wrote a book called The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. I would not agree with everything Owen wrote in his book, but I love the title. In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ the power of Death has been emptied. Death has been emptied of its power over us. The great Anglican priest and poet, John Donne, wrote in his meditation Death Be Not Proud a summary of how Christians now live (or should) in the light of death because death no longer has power over us. He wrote,
Death be not proud. Though some have called thee mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so. For those whom thou thinkst thou dost overthrow die not, poor death. Nor yet canst thou kill me.
Donne ends with,
One short sleep past, we awake eternally, and death shall be no more. Death, thou shalt die.

Because we are united with Christ’s death, we too are dead to the power of Death and we are free. Because we know that our life is hidden in the one whose Life is more powerful than Death, we are free. Because we know that Christ has hold of us – and Christ will not let go – we are free. We are free from the power of Death. It has no ultimate claim on us.

And so, we need not live and act in fear of Death. And we need not try to appease the powers of Death, as humans have all too often done, sacrificing others for our own sense of security.

The idea has a powerful hold on the human imagination. We see it in mythology in the idea that if you sacrifice someone else the gods will be appeased and let you live. But it’s not just mythology. It has been acted out in history. In the Old Testament, time and again God tells Israel, “Do not sacrifice your children the way your neighbors do." The ancient Carthaginians tossed their children into the sacred fire, hoping that in doing so they might appease the gods and buy some time against the Romans. The ancient Aztecs carved out the hearts of their sacrificial victims to feed the gods and to buy themselves some security.

But we need to beware lest we pat ourselves on the back and say, “We don’t sacrifice people. We don’t carve out their hearts on some sacrificial altar or toss people into the fire.” If we are honest with ourselves, we need to acknowledge that  we have indeed offered up sacrificial victims for our own security and way of life, hoping to stave off the power of Death.

We sacrifice young people when we send them off as soldiers to offer life and limb in battle on our behalf.

We sacrifice innocent people who are killed in our wars. It is estimated that in our current war(s) some 50 to 100 thousand innocent Iraqis, Afghanistanis, and others who just happened to get in the way of our sense of insecurity have been killed by our bombs. We call it collateral damage. But, it is human sacrifice for our security.

We sacrifice criminals, hoping that if we kill the killers we might feel a bit more safe. If that worked, Texas would be the safest state in the Union. Even if it worked, we would have to ask ourselves if that is the kind of sacrifice we want to offer – especially given the evidence that many truly innocent people have ended up on death row.

We sacrifice the unwelcome intruder of the womb. And, whatever its hoped for promise, embryonic stem cell research is the sacrifice of life to stave off Death.

We sacrifice refugees and other unwelcome "intruders" preferring that they suffer rather than risking the possibility that we might suffer because of them – because we fear Death more than we trust the God of Easter.

The cult of the gun that insists that anyone and everyone who wants to should have access to guns designed to kill humans is another way we bow to Death. Nevermind if it means accepting gun violence unparalleled anywhere except actual war zones.

More subtly, we sacrifice others in an economic system in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and whole parts of the world suffer so our way of life can be maintained.

The sacrifice of Jesus was in one sense just another example of the sinful, selfish, sacrificial bargain humans have made with Death. On Good Friday, humanity sacrificed Jesus as we have always been willing to sacrifice some other(s) for the people rather than risk the possibility that we might perish (cf. John 11:50). But its deeper meaning was different. The sacrifice of Jesus was not a sacrifice to appease God, let alone Death. Rather, God in Christ offered himself freely as a self-sacrifice to undo the hold Sin and Death have on us and to absorb and transform our death-dealing sinfulness. The resurrection of Jesus has demonstrated that the old way of the world in which violence and the sacrificing of others are seen as necessary is a dead end. The resurrection opens a new way and inaugurates the New Creation in which there is restoration, reconciliation, forgiveness, healing, and peace.

Recourse to violence against others or ourselves is a false sacrifice and it participates in the way of this world which is death and not the Spirit of Jesus Christ which is life and peace (Romans 8:6). But, if Christ has made the one sufficient sacrifice, then we can take shelter at the foot of his cross and lay down our hammer and nails and live in the light of his resurrection. And we can learn what this means, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice" (Matthew 9:13). Christians who know that the death of Christ was indeed the death of Death are freed from the fear of Death and the myriad ways we are tempted to appease its power at the expense of others.

Perhaps this does not mean we must embrace complete non-violence (though that is the direction the New Testament points). But, at the very least, Christians should be much more wary than we often are of allowing others to suffer so we can remain comfortable and of justifying violence for our own security. And we should never celebrate the deaths of others, even our enemies.

We worship the crucified and risen Lord in whose Life our life is hid. Because we know that Christ, crucified and risen, has defeated the power of Death, we need not sacrifice the lives of others to protect our own. The death of Christ was the death of Death. Now, the only sacrifice we need to offer is our own broken, contrite heart and the living sacrifice of love for one another in thanksgiving to God for what he has done for us. Our lives are now hidden with Christ in God. And we are free to live without fear in his Life and Peace.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Monday, March 27, 2017

The Highest Honor

I talk a lot about the Church being a people of God's mercy and delight. Here is another example of what that looks like:

Corrie ten Boom (1892-1983) was devout Dutch Christian who worked to rescue Jews during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. She recounts an attempt to recruit a pastor to assist in offering refuge to those trying to escape the Holocaust:

Back in the dining room I pulled the coverlet from the baby’s face. There was a long silence. The man leaned forward, his hand in spite of himself reaching for the tiny fist curled around the blanket. For a moment I saw compassion and fear struggle in his face. The he straightened. “Definitely not. We could lose our lives for this Jewish child!” Unseen by either of us, Father had appeared in the doorway. “Give the child to me, Corrie,” he said. Father held the baby, his white beard brushing the little face. . . . At last he looked up at the pastor. “You say we could lose our lives for this child. I would consider that the highest honor that could come to my family.”

As it happened, Corrie’s father, Caspar ten Boom and other members of her family died in Nazi prison camps thereby receiving the honor of lying down their lives for the sake of the lives of others.

The ten Booms delighted in God and all other human beings, including those in whom it was inconvenient to delight, and thus they were prepared to extend mercy to those whose lives were threatened – even at the risk of their own safety and security. This is what it means to be a people of God’s mercy and delight. I pray that I and other Christians might more and more become such a people. I wonder how we might better form such a people.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Centered on Jesus III: Jerome the Ciceronian

St. Jerome

St Jerome (347-420) was one of the great saints of the Church (and one of the crankier ones). He was a great Bible commentator and translated the Bible into Latin, the common tongue of the western Roman Empire. In a letter, Jerome recounted a vision he had in which he was revealed to be kidding himself about his true loyalties:

"Suddenly I was caught up in the spirit and dragged before the judgment seat of the Judge; and here the light was so bright, and those who stood around were so radiant, that I cast myself upon the ground and did not dare to look up. Asked who and what I was I replied: 'I am a Christian.' But He who presided said: 'You lie; you are a follower of Cicero and not of Christ. For 'where your treasure is, there will thy heart be also.'"

Jerome was convicted of believing himself to be a Christian although his thinking and living were much
Cicero
more shaped by his loyalty to the Stoic philosophy of Cicero. As a result he was trying to make Jesus look more like Cicero. In the vision, Jesus called him out.

I wonder, What might Jesus say about our truest loyalties? Few Christians in America are likely to be accused of being followers “of Cicero and not of Christ.” But, are there other persons, entities, or philosophies that shape our identities more than Christ? Where do we find our deepest values and sense of belonging?

There are multiple possible answers. But, in our current polarized political and social context, it does seem that many get their identity more from belonging to “Conservatism” or “Progressivism” than following Jesus or belonging to the body of Christ, the Church. In fact, these two identities have much of the character of religious conviction and communal identity. And the opposition between the two has the character of religious sectarian conflict. Some studies suggest that people are more likely to marry someone of another religious faith who shares their social/political beliefs and identity than the other way around. For more on this, see HERE and HERE.

For much of my priestly career, I regularly took issue with the seeming inability of many in the Episcopal Church to distinguish a Liberal/Progressive prejudice from a Gospel imperative (see HERE). But, it is clear that Christian Conservatives are just as unable to disentangle their social and political prejudices from the Gospel and quite prepared to “put Christian values on pause to get the work done” as Ben Carson said during last year's presidential campaign. Christian Conservatives are just as accommodated to culture as are Christian Progressives. They just accommodate different parts of the culture.

This is a problem because Jesus was not a first century manifestation of 21st century American Conservatism or Progressivism. Christianity is not seamlessly compatible with either. To try to make it so is a kind of idolatry. We who are Christians need to ask ourselves if we are followers of Conservatism or Progressivism and not of Christ. And we need to wean ourselves of our emotional attachment to those and other identities that compromise our identity in Jesus.

What would the verdict be if we were “caught up in the spirit and dragged before the judgment seat of the Judge”? Are we followers of Christ? Or are we followers of someone or something else? Conservatism? Progressivism? America? Is our allegiance to Jesus Christ or do we pledge allegiance to something else? As Jerome learned in his vision getting this straight is no small matter.

When we give our allegiance is to something other than Jesus Christ – Conservatism, Progressivism, this or that political party, a nation, or anything else  we can find ourselves endorsing things that followers of Jesus ought not endorse and excusing behaviors followers of Jesus ought not excuse. And our charity will be cramped as we limit our reverence and gentleness to those with whom we identify and who follow whatever idols we follow. And that is sin.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Centered on Jesus II: Not a Mid-point on a Spectrum


II. What it is Not, Part 2: Not a Mid-point on a Spectrum

To be a radical centrist as I mean it does not mean trying to locate oneself at some mid-point of an imagined right-left spectrum. The idea of such a spectrum along which everything must be placed as more or less Conservative or more or less Progressive (Liberal) is itself an idol that creates a sort of "conceptual trap"  a way of seeing things that so shapes the imagination that it is hard to imagine other ways of seeing.

To ask if Jesus (and Christianity in general) is more compatible with American Conservatism or American Progressivism (often called Liberalism) is like asking in China if Christianity is more compatible with Confucianism or Taoism.

The truth is there are ad hoc similarities between Christianity and both Taoism and Confucianism. A Christian who converts from either of those might look back and say; “Now I know what that means in the light of Christ” or “Oh, I need to change my mind and behavior if I want to conform to Jesus.” In the end, Taoism and Confucianism have a lot more in common with one another as varieties of the Chinese heritage than either of them has with Christianity which operates under a different logic.

The same is true for the socio-political ideologies of Conservatism and Progressivism which shape the way their adherents engage the world in ways analogous to religious faith. Both are rooted in Classical Western Liberalism (which is why I am using "Progressive" rather than the more common "Liberal" to identify one of its sub-traditions). In this sense, what we usually call “Conservative” is part of this Liberal Tradition as much as what we usually call “Liberal” or “Progressive.” As part of this Liberal Tradition, both Conservatives and Progressives share these tendencies:

* Fetishizing the individual as autonomous and independent

* Fetishizing the modern nation-state as the fundamental and ultimate socio-political reality to which final allegiance is given.

* Making faith primarily a private, personal matter rather than a matter of allegiance to the body of the Church.

* Infatuation with the notion of abstractions, e.g., love, justice, freedom, reason etc, as universally accessible and independent of traditions or particular communal histories and practices.

Given these similarities, from a Christ-centered perspective, ideological Conservatism and ideological Progressivism do not so much occupy opposite poles of a spectrum as they are more like points on contiguous sections of a dart board  like sections 16 and 7 – more or less removed from the center if the center is Jesus Christ.

To be clear, the point here is not that the heritage of Classical Western Liberalism is altogether bad, whether in its conservative or progressive manifestations. Doubtless there is good in that heritage, e.g., the breaking down of a fixed class system, moving toward the social equality of women, the acceptance of ideological and religious diversity, and things like the freedom of the press. Just as there are things about Taoism and Confucianism a Christian can embrace, there are things about the Liberal Tradition in both its more Conservative and it more Progressive forms Christians can embrace. Several of the things just mentioned actually have roots or antecedents in Christianity. And, all things considered, the Liberal Tradition is preferable to illiberal approaches to politics, e.g., Authoritarianism, Fascism, Marxism, ethno-nationalism.

Being a Centrist does not mean trying to be neutral or unengaged with the world around us. Jesus was neither. And centered Christians will have sympathies one way or another. But, we need to be wary of investing too much emotional energy or loyalty in political parties, movements, and ideologies lest our allegiance to them compromise our allegiance to Christ and inhibit our ability to love our neighbor.

If Christians are not suspicious of these loyalties, we will again and again fall into the trap of trying to fit Jesus and Christianity into those loyalties. The result is a fractured and compromised Church with no witness. The religious right seeks to make God, Jesus, and Christianity safe for conservative values. The religious left seeks to make God, Jesus, and Christianity safe for progressive values. The one ends up playing servile chaplain to the red states while the other plays servile chaplain to the blue states. And both end up more or less the chaplains of American Civil Religion. In their utter conformity, neither has a truly prophetic witness centered in what God has done and is doing through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Because both are content to repeat the prejudices of this world, neither is able to bear witness to the New Creation.

Wary of being drawn off Christ the center, radical Christian centrists will engage Conservatism and Progressivism both critically and sympathetically  seeking such ad hoc congruities as might be found. But it will not accept a view of the world in which they are poles on a spectrum along which Christians must place themselves.

Previous: Centered on Jesus I: Introduction/Not Moderate

Next: Centered on Jesus III: Jerome the Ciceronian

Friday, February 10, 2017

Centered on Jesus I: Introduction/Not Moderate


Introduction

Once, while sitting in the back of a class in seminary, I turned to a friend and said, “I’m a radical centrist.” At the time, I was mostly just amused by the oxymoronic irony of the phrase. But, upon reflection, I have come to appreciate the term. To be a Christian is to place the life and teaching of Jesus at the center of one’s life. This is the first is a series of posts in which I will explain what I think that means – and doesn’t mean.



I. What it is Not, Part 1: Not Moderate

Radical Centrist is not the same as “moderate.” I confess that I am congenitally cautious. Thus, I find moderation in and of itself an attractive idea. It can be a short-coming for sure. But I am also convinced that there is nothing moderate about following one who said things like:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
– Mark 8:34

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
– Matthew 5:44

For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
– Matthew 7:14

He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.”
– Matthew 10:39

To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.
– Luke 6:29

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.
– Mark 10:25

So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
– Luke 14:33

But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
– Matthew 5:28

But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.
– Matthew 5:22

If you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
– Matthew 6:14-15

Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.
– Mark 10:11-12

If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.
– Luke 14:26

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practised without neglecting the others.
– Matthew 23:23

You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
– Matthew 25:41-46

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
– John 13:34-35

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you;
– John 6:53

He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him.”
– John 3:36

I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.
– John 14:6

If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
– John 14:15

For more, see What Jesus Commanded

To be a radical centrist means being centered on Jesus Christ and taking seriously the radical challenge of his whole life and teaching. It also means being suspicious of attempts to rationalize or interpret away that challenge in any of the particulars in order to make Jesus ‘safe’. And it means being honest about one’s own failure to live into his radical challenge. There’s nothing very moderate about any of that.