Monday, December 11, 2017

Margaret of Antioch & the Dragon of Sexual Harassment

In the Cathedral of St. Paul the Apostle, Fond du Lac, we have a statue of St. Margaret of Antioch. It is a beautiful, award-winning work of art. St Margaret is not well known these days. It is possible she never actually existed. But, her legend was very popular in the Middle Ages (legends, actually, since there are multiple versions with varying details).

I've been thinking about Margaret in light of the proliferation of stories of women sexually harassed, assaulted, and abused by powerful men. Hers is a story a woman's courageous and powerful resistance to the unwanted sexual advances, and eventual violence, of a powerful man (and the demonic character of his behavior).

Here is a version of the legend.

Margaret was born near Antioch of Pisidia located in what is now, Turkey. Her father was a leading priest of a pagan cult. Her mother died in childbirth and Margaret was raised by a nurse. Her nurse was a Christian and under her care, Margaret became a Christian. With that, her father disowned her. Margaret continued to live with her nurse and tended her sheep.

When she was fifteen, Margaret was noticed by Olybrius, the pagan magistrate of Antioch and the surrounding area. He was infatuated with her beauty. He made sexual advances toward her which she rejected. Unable to have his way with her, he had her arrested and charged with being a Christian which was illegal. She was threatened with death if she did not renounce her faith in Christ (or submit to Olybrius' sexual demands). She refused to either recant or submit. He then had her tortured. Still, she stood firm, even through grievous torment. Finally, he sentenced her to death.

The night before her beheading, Margaret prayed for strength and courage. An angel was sent to encourage her and gave her a wooden cross to hold onto. The angel left and, clinging to the cross, she continued to pray. Then, demon appeared to her in the form of a dragon. The dragon attacked and attempted to swallow her. Standing firm, Margaret held up the cross as the dragon demon tries to consume her. The beast choked on the cross, spit her out, and died. Then, Satan, himself, appeared to Margaret saying he had done all he could to defeat her, but her faith and courage had defeated him. With that he disappeared.

The next morning, Margaret of Antioch strode to her martyrdom as a victor with her head held high, singing and praying.

As I said there are many versions of the story. This is my retelling. And there are many similar stories in the Church of women who refused unwelcome sexual advances. It is almost a genre unto itself (see 11 Saints Who Endured Sexual Abuse). In each of them, a woman is pressured sexually or attacked by a powerful man or men. In each the woman resists.

There might be problematic elements to these stories. But, like other stories of female saints, they do extol female agency in ways that were not common in their wider cultural context. Margaret would decide for herself whether and with whom she would have sex. She resisted the sexual harassment of a powerful man. For the sake of classic Christian virtue. For the sake of her own integrity.

What of Margaret’s tormentor? His behavior is not excused or explained away.  We might interpret the vision of the dragon as reflecting his beastly behavior. If he, himself, is not inherently a dragon-demon, he has surrendered himself to a beastly abuse of sex and power. In classic Christianity, we all need to resist the dragon of lust. And faithful Christians have historically, through honest self-examination, have guarded against it in thought word and action. But, when that dragon is combined with the dragons of other deadly sins like pride, malice, envy, etc., particularly in those with power; it becomes something worse. 

Lately, we have been made aware of just how common that is. Some powerful and famous men have been revealed to be very much like the dragon that tried to consume Margaret in their sexual ‘consumption’ of women. Some of them have paid a price in loss of job and reputation. Others have yet to. Stories like that of St. Margaret remind us of classic Christian virtues and remind us whose side we should be on when women are sexually harassed or assaulted by men – however famous or powerful the man is, however inconvenient it might be politically or personally for us. Men, especially, need to examine our own collusion and be prepared to call other men out when when their words and behavior is degrading or harassing or worse. And we need to support women when, like St. Margaret, they speak out and resist.
If you would like to read a poetic version of St. Margaret's story, here is one from the 13th century

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Centered on Jesus V: If Christ is King . . .

This Sunday is the Feast of Christ the King. Pope Pius XI instituted the feast in 1925 in response to the
rise of secularization, atheism, and communism. The Soviet Union had been founded recently in 1917. It
Window above the High Altar
of St. Paul Cathedral,
Fond du Lac, WI
is significant that 1925 was also the year that Benito Mussolini established a Fascist dictatorship in Italy. Both Communism and Fascism expected people to give their highest allegiance to their nation and its government. Pope Pius rightly recognized this as antithetical to Christianity. 
For Christians, Jesus Christ is the only king or ruler to whom allegiance is owed. Anglicans and others adopted the feast as a regular reminder of that allegiance.

Jesus told Pilate that his kingdom "was not of this world" (John 18:36). By that he did not mean that his kingdom was simply 'otherworldly' having no earthly or political implications. He meant it was 'other than the way of this world' and its kingdoms which rule through coercion and violence with the threat of pain and death. Otherwise, his followers would have fought to keep him from being handed over. But, Pilate recognized Jesus as a threat to the political system and had him executed as one claiming to be "King of the Jews" (Mark 15:26, Matthew 27:37, Luke 23:38, John 19:19).

The earliest Christian affirmation was, "Jesus is Lord" (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:3, Romans 10:9-13, Philippians 2:11). It was a politically charged assertion.  Jesus was Lord/King. No other god or gods. Not Rome. Not the Emperor. That got early Christians in trouble with the political authorities of their day as it had Jesus.

Claiming that Jesus Christ is Lord or King remains a radical claim. And it continues to raise questions about where our true loyalties lie. While Communist and Fascist regimes overtly demanded that their citizens give their highest allegiance to the nation, all nations in the modern era (since about 1650) have more or less encouraged such allegiance. Other allegiances  like allegiance to Jesus Christ and the Church – have been minimized, side-lined, or co-opted. And many Christians have a difficult time distinguishing one allegiance from the other.

I once saw a woman wearing a t-shirt that I found disturbing and very telling. It was a white t-shirt that had JESUSAVES written across the front. I believe he does. But that was not the only message on the shirt. All the letters were blue except for those in the middle – USA – which were red. So, it looked like this: JESUSAVESIt was a telling icon of the confused syncretism of many Christians in America. Who saves? Jesus? The USA? Or, are the two so emotionally entwined in our imaginations that we can't tell the difference? It is an illustration of Stanley Hauerwas' assertion that for many Americans, the nation is their true church. For many Americans, America is the social body to which their ultimate allegiance is pledged regardless of what religious affiliation they formally claim (see The End of American Protestantism). Of course, this confusion of loyalties is a danger in most, if not all, nations.

Patriotism might not always be idolatrous. A distinction must be made, however, between holding dear or celebrating the particular culture and history of a place/people and the sort of nationalistic exceptionalism that too often gets expressed. 'Christian nationalist' is an oxymoron. Christians should be wary of appeals to patriotism and suspicious of those who use its appeal to shepherd them in one direction or another. If Jesus Christ is the King, our citizenship is elsewhere (Philippians 3:20) and our loyalty is to his coming kingdom. We live according the the shape of that kingdom seeking to anticipate his will being done on earth as in heaven (Matthew 6:9-13). We get some indication of Jesus' kingdom priorities in the Gospel Lesson appointed for the Feast of Christ the King (Matthew 25:31-46). Christians need to beware of the temptation to confuse loyalty to King Jesus with loyalty to other entities – including Uncle Sam – who would claim the kind of emotional attachment that belongs to him alone. Our allegiance is to Christ the King. We pledge that allegiance to that king every time we recite the Creed. All other allegiances are secondary and should be held lightly. He alone is our hope and security. 

The Feast of Christ the King is a helpful reminder to Christians that their allegiances lie not with any government, nation, party, ideology; or flag; but with Jesus Christ and his Church. And it reminds us that no area of human life, private or political, lies outside the concerns of the King and the responsibility of his followers.

Here's a bit from Pope Pius XI:

If to Christ our Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth; if all men, purchased by his precious blood, are by a new right subjected to his dominion; if this power embraces all men, it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire. He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ. He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God. He must reign in our hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone.





Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Centered on Jesus IV: The Story and Other Stories

Centered on Jesus III: Jerome the Ciceronian

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

Centered on Jesus I: Introduction. Not Moderate

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

How Big is Your Church?

A sermon preached on All Saints Sunday

Has anyone ever asked you, “How big is your church?” When I was rector of a church, I would get asked that question a lot. I never got asked questions like 

How faithful is your church?
How generous is your church?
Does it attend to the real problems in the surrounding community?
Does it love and support its children? It’s elderly?
Are strangers welcome?
Does your church care about the poor?
Are the people there merely nice or do they love with costly, genuine love?
How prayerful is your church?
Are the members of your church gentle with one another?
Are the members of your church free to be honest? Genuine?
Is forgiveness and reconciliation practiced at your church?
Is your church the kind of place that encourages you to believe in God?

It seems to me such questions are at least as important
as how many people are counted as members
or how big the budget is.

Today, we are celebrating the Feast of All Saints. In the collect we just prayed we acknowledged that God has knit us together with the saints in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of Christ our Lord. If that is the case, one answer to the question about the size of your church is that it is as big as the multitude of the saints, that great cloud of witnesses that surround us. And that is true no matter how many people show up on a given Sunday. Take comfort in that.

But, don’t become complacent. Those same saints, that great cloud of witnesses, urge and encourage us to run with endurance the race that is set before us and follow them in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that God have prepared for those who truly love him. “Ineffable joy” – joy beyond our imagining, more joy than can bear unless we are made able to bear it, more joy than we can express. As we hear in the passage from 1 John, “What we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him. We will be like Jesus in his resurrection joy.

What might that look like? In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus offers the Beatitudes, which might point us in the direction of entering into some of the joy and tasting and seeing the Lord is good as we just hear in the Psalm. The beatitudes might also offer a way of measuring the church differently from adding up numbers.

There is a new translation of the New Testament by theologian, David Bentley Hart. Hart has made an interesting choice in translating the Beatitudes. Instead of the familiar “Blessed” he has “Blissful.” I’m going to use that this morning because it points to those ineffable joys that are promised to those who live in the way of Jesus. It reminds us that this is the way of the saints who have run before us in pursuit of the blissful life.

Blissful are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Is this a church that is poor in spirit?
Are we encouraged to let go of the illusion of self-sufficiency
and to recognize their own neediness?
Most especially our need of God,
but also our need of one another?
And are we committed to assisting those who are poor in the usual sense?


Blissful are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.”
Is this a place where mourning happens?
Traditionally this has been understood to mean mourning
for our own failure and sin,
our own inability and unwillingness to love as Jesus loves.
Is this church a place where we are encouraged
to mourn our sin individually and corporately?
Is repentance practiced?
But also, is this a place where people are permitted
to mourn the hurt, heartache, hardness of life?
Or do we try to slap a smiley face on everything?
Is this a place that mourns with those who mourn?
Is this a place that mourns the very real suffering in the world around it?
Does its mourning provoke action to address that suffering?

Blissful are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.”
Is this a church where meekness is encouraged? Gentleness?
Is humility, modeled on the self-emptying love of Jesus Christ, typical here?
Are members willing to set their agendas and preferences aside
for the sake of others?
And are we committed to engaging those who are inherently meek
due to their weakness

Blissful are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.”
Is this a congregation of people who hunger and thirst for righteousness?
Is holiness encouraged and pursued?
Is righteousness understood to be about right relationship with God
and right relationship with others?
Is this a community that hungers for and seeks to live
in anticipation of the kingdom of God
in which there will be perfect harmony?
Is this a community that knows what the LORD requires:
to do justice,
and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Blissful are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”
Is this a church where mercy is practiced and received?
Are we patient with one another?
Do we bear one another’s burden?
Do we bear the burden of one another?
Do we practice the art of forgiveness?
Do we seek to understand one another?

"Blissful are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
Does this church encourage and cultivate such single-hearted devotion to Jesus Christ
that our hearts are aligned with his
and that every decision is made with the intention
of being drawn deeper into his heart?
Are members encouraged to purify themselves
from all that keeps them from following Jesus
in his way of pure mercy and peace
in obedience to his Father?

Blissful are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.”
Is this a church that knows and lives the art of reconciliation?
Do its members seek peace?
Do we resist the society's indulgence in anger, resentment, and vengeance?
Its fascination with violence?
Do we know ourselves to be agents
of God’s ministry of reconciliation in the world?

Blissful are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Though we live in a time and place
where real persecution for righteousness' sake is unlikely,
are people formed in this church
such that they at least seem odd or peculiar to their neighbors
because of the way they act, talk, and live?
Are members encouraged to go against the flow?
To question the status quo?
To recognize that what passes for wisdom in this world
is often foolishness in the light of God's wisdom?
And is this a church that is engaged with members of the body of Christ
in parts of the world where believers are truly persecuted on Jesus’ account?
Does it pray for, support and encourage those sister and brothers?

There are lots of ways to assess the health of a church.
Most of them have little to do directly
with the kinds of things that can be counted, weighed, or measured
in the usual sense.

Still, a church that is growing in the ways that matter
is likely also to grow in the more conventionally measurable ways.
Increasing attendance can be nothing more than ecclesial obesity
or it can be a sign that the Holy Spirit
is moving among the members of a church,
birthing new life and drawing new people
who desire to be a part of such a community
and the resulting love, truth, and joy.

A bigger budget doesn’t necessarily indicate spiritual health,
but a growing budget can be a reflection
of a spirit of generosity, commitment, and thanksgiving.

Let me be clear that, as your bishop,
I hope and pray for growth
and want to see our numbers increase.
Any church worth its salt of the earth and light of the world
ought to be growing in tangible ways
precisely because it is growing in the ways that really matter.
Let us recommit ourselves to becoming more and more
the kind of people and kind of church
that can answer "yes" to the above questions.
That is the way of Jesus.
            It is the way of the saints.
                        May it be our way.

How big is your church?
How blissful is your church?
How blissful are you?

Friday, October 27, 2017

Loving Your Neighbor in an Age of Compassion Fatigue

I’m tired. My heart hurts. My soul is weary. It has been a hard several months. Three major hurricanes in quick succession have left devastation in their wake. Deadly earthquakes in Mexico. Wild fires in California and other parts of the western United States have resulted in death and destruction. A gunman in Las Vegas shot more than 600 people leaving 59 dead. We have been reminded of how unacceptably common it is for women to be sexually harassed. And those are only some of the awful events that have happened or are happening near and far and have assaulted our sensibilities when we turn our televisions, radios, computers, and smartphones. I have not even experienced any of these things first hand, but my heart feels battered by it all.

Add on the stories we each know of family, neighbors, friends, and fellow church members who are struggling with disease, family issues, work difficulties, etc. and it all starts to feel overwhelming.

Even if you are not in the midst of such troubles yourself, knowing about them can become a cumulative burden on your spirit.

On top of all that there is the venial, petty, divisive nature of our political discourse fueled by and exacerbating deep political and cultural polarization that make many of us wary of honest conversation with neighbors and family.

I wonder if all of this contributes to the sense I get from talking to people that many of us feel harassed by life. I wonder if it contributes to the tense, polarization we see in our politics and society.

Information technology and social networking mean we are more connected than ever to the rest of the world. This means we are aware of more pain, suffering, and disappointment than ever.

It takes a toll. I wonder if our whole society isn’t experiencing a mild (or not so mild) form  of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Or more accurately, perhaps, the related condition of “compassion fatigue”. Compassion fatigue has traditionally been associated with people in the helping professions – doctors, nurses, therapists, police officers, social workers, etc. But, with the increased connectivity and access to images and information, I think it has become more generalized.

The symptoms are:

•disturbed sleep
•intrusive thoughts (unwelcome involuntary thoughts, images, or unpleasant ideas that may become obsessions, are upsetting or distressing, and can be difficult to manage or eliminate)
•irritability
•outbursts of anger
•impatience
•hyper-vigilance (constant scanning of the environment for threats)
•and a desire to avoid people who we know are hurting or who you know will disturb your equilibrium.

Sound familiar? I suspect many of us have experienced several of these symptoms. They seem pervasive in our society. I suspect that this explains in part the increased polarization we see all around us. It also explains the pervasive cynicism, anger, and hopelessness.

Some researchers have suggested that all of this leads to a sort of “psychic numbness” that diminishes our ability to engage those around us and the world with compassion. We are tempted to resort to a hunker down mentality and become insular. Or we throw up our hands in resignation that nothing can change for the good. Or we surrender to the comfort of an us vs them mentality that allows us to limit our true compassion and understanding to those who are like us.

And yet, as Christians, we must resist this tendency even as we acknowledge its reality and power. In his summary of the Law, Jesus enjoins us to, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That is a call to compassion, a call to care. How might we respond to that call while avoiding compassion fatigue?

Let us first of all admit that loving our neighbor is not always easy. Not just because some neighbors are hard to love – which is true – but because of the nature of love itself. To love someone means to make ourselves available to them – available to their hopes and joys, their need and their fear. That also means we make ourselves vulnerable to their hurt and sorrow. That is the inevitable consequence of love. As C. S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves:

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. . . . It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least 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.

The cumulative effect of that vulnerability is what leads to compassion fatigue.

How do we avoid becoming weary or cynical or withdrawing into our own small private worlds? How do we continue to be available and vulnerable in love toward our neighbor in an age of compassion fatigue?

• I suggest it begins with the first commandment of Jesus’ summary of the Law – “Love the Lord your God with all your heart mind and soul.” When we orient everything in our heart, mind, and life toward God who is working all for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28) the hard realities in our lives and the world around us are put in perspective. We love God first of all because God is worthy of love. But, also because we are made for that love, orienting our lives toward the love at the heart of it all is the foundation of our health and strength and our own ability to persist in loving.

• Thus, it is good to make it a priority to carve out time each day for plant yourself next to streams of living water as the psalmist encourages in Psalm 1. That means pray. Certainly, pray about the things that concern you. Pray God to pour mercy on your own hurts and those of your neighbor. And, more challenging, pray God’s mercy on those neighbors who are hard for you to love. But, I encourage you also to practice the prayer of silence. Be still and know that the Lord is God (Psalm 46:10). Listen for the still small voice of God. Calm and quiet your soul, like a child quieted at its mother's breast (Psalm 131:2). Sink your heart into the heart-healing mercy of the Heart of God each day.

• And don’t just pray alone. “Do not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but come to worship where we reorient ourselves toward God and encourage one another” (Hebrews 10:25). In worship we gather in solidarity with others to orient our imaginations toward the Love at the heart of everything. We encourage one another as together we are encouraged – in-heartened – in the presence of God.

• Keep Sabbath. Take extended time to rest and focus your attention on God. Try this. On Sundays, do not watch the news, do not go on the internet, and rest from the worries of the world. God will continue to tend the world while you rest. Do something restorative – read, walk in the woods, exercise, knit, make something, etc. Some researchers suggest that our capacity for compassion is finite and will become depleted if not restored. Among other things, Sabbath is a means of restoring that capacity. Beyond that, it is good to ration your engagement with the news. Stay informed, but limit how much news and commentary you consume (or consumes you).

• Acknowledge your own vulnerability. You are a limited, finite creature. You are not God. Only God, who is love, can be infinitely available and vulnerable in love. Our capacity for compassion is limited and can become drained. You cannot give all of yourself all the time to everyone and everything. And sometimes it is OK and necessary to step back for a time. Know when you’ve had enough.

• Remember that God bears it all and bears it with you. You are not alone. Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." The burden is lighter when we allow God to bear it with us.

• Do what you can and trust the rest to God. Focus your care. Again, this is part of accepting our creatureliness. We cannot do everything everywhere. But, we can do something. So, it helps to decide what we can do and focus on that. Are their particular people or situations that are on your heart? Address those. Perhaps there is one cause that animates your spirit. Contribute to that and get involved. You do not need to take on all the world’s woes and challenges. But, doing something allows us to trust God to raise up others to care for other things. Doing something somewhere also frees us from despairing or feeling helpless. This is true locally and personally as well. If we are careful not to take on more than we can manage, we can manage, with God’s help, what we are called to take on. In doing so, we can still remain open to people and situations that aren’t already on our radar while discerning what we are called to do and letting go of the rest.

• Find someone to talk to about the hard stuff who will encourage you rather than reinforce the things that agitate you. “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). “Bear one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:1).

• Don’t dwell on the negative. Don’t allow yourself to get in a rut of rehearsing all that is bad in the world or the wrongs that have been done to you. “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things (Philippians 4:8).

• End each day naming the good – in your own life and in the world. Give thanks to God for at least three things. “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)

Jesus enjoins us to love our neighbor as ourselves. That is difficult and perilous thing as we make ourselves available and vulnerable to caring in a world full of tragedy and disappointment. But, by the grace of Christ’s Spirit working in us and through us, we can be refreshed, renewed, and empowered to love our neighbor even in an age of compassion fatigue.

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 IV: 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.

Previous: Centered on Jesus III: Jerome the Ciceronian

Next: Centered on Jesus V: If Christ is King . . .