Sunday, July 8, 2018

Praying Shapes Believing. Or Does It?

In Episcopalian circles one often hears appeals to the idea that “praying shapes believing.” It is the title of a widely used commentary on the Book of Common Prayer written by Leonel Mitchell. I have come across the phrase, spoken or written, several times in reference to the current proposal before the Episcopal Church’s General Convention to revise the prayer book. But, the way it is often used misunderstands its meaning.

“Praying shapes believing” is a translation of an ancient axiom long used by Anglicans to express our approach to Christian theology and practice. The Latin phrase is lex orandi, lex credendi, literally, “the law of praying is the law of believing”. Episcopalians and other Anglicans often simply refer to this Latin phrase. It is a short-hand paraphrase of this passage from ‘The Call of All Nations’ by early Christian theologian, Prosper of Aquitaine (390-455):

Let us consider the sacraments of priestly prayers, which having been handed down by the apostles are celebrated uniformly throughout the whole world and in every Catholic Church so that the law of praying might establish the law of believing.

“Praying shapes believing" is an imprecise and ambiguous translation of that ancient axiom and thus misleading. It has led to what appears to be a widespread misunderstanding of its intent.

If “praying shapes believing” simply means that whatever we pray will shape our understanding, it is no more than a truism. Of course, if one prays regularly for God to increase one’s material prosperity, one will come to believe that God is primarily about doing so and that God has no problem with the accumulation of money and stuff. If a church fills its worship with images of God’s wrath and judgment, regular worshipers will come to believe that God is primarily angry and judgmental. But, some Episcopalians seem to appeal to the idea that praying shapes believing along these lines. We want to shape the way people believe. Therefore we need to revise our prayer and worship so they will come to believe better. But that is not what lex orandi, lex credendi means.

Some seem to use the phrase “praying shapes believing” in another way. Our prayers and, more specifically, our worship, should reflect what we believe. And if our belief has changed, it is time to change our prayer and worship to better reflect what we have come to believe. But that is also not what lex orandi, lex credendi means.

Lex orandi, lex credendi, the law of prayer is the law of belief, means that what we believe is determined by what we pray. More specifically, it means that our worship as expressed in the liturgies of our prayer book determine the parameters of our belief. It was common among earlier Anglicans to refer to the liturgies – especially those of Baptism, the Eucharist, and the Ordinals – as the definition of what we believe. What are members of our Church expected to believe about God, life, and humanity? The answers (and the limits) are found there. We are not free to believe contrary to our common worship.

Those liturgies are not simply our invention. They are something we have received. With the exception perhaps of Prayer C, the liturgies of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer are clearly rooted in ancient liturgies of the Church. We are not free to simply change them to reflect beliefs contrary to them. They predate and determine what we believe. Not the other way around.

And that is a major reason for my skepticism regarding current calls for revising our prayer book. One of the resolves of the current resolution (A068 Plan for the Revision of the Book of Common Prayer) indicates that the process of revision will include “providing space for, encouraging the submission of, and facilitating the perfection of rites that will arise from the continual movement of the Holy Spirit among us and growing insights of our Church.” There are lots of reasons to be wary of that phrase. Most of all I have seen little evidence that we can discern the difference between “the continual movement of the Holy Spirit among us” and the latest prejudice of American Progressives. We should not seek to remake God in our image. We should be wary of doing the same with our worship.

I am not in principle opposed to revising the Book of Common Prayer. I actually would welcome liturgies with more expansive inclusive language for humans and even more expansive language of God. But, I distrust and am opposed to the spirit under which it seems it is being proposed. I do not trust my own or others ability to discern “the continual movement of the Holy Spirit among us.”

Joseph Butler (1662-1752) was one of the great theologians of the Anglican tradition (in spite of his removal from the proposed revision of our calendar of Lesser Feasts and Fasts). He was once essential reading in the curricula of Episcopal seminaries. In a conversation with John Wesley, as reported by Wesley, Bishop Butler said, "The pretending to extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Spirit is a horrid thing–a very horrid thing." Wesley insisted to the bishop that if that is what the bishop thought he was up to, he was mistaken. But, it seems that pretending to extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Spirit is precisely what the resolution to revise the prayer book is suggesting. That might be how some understand “praying shapes believing”, but it is not lex orandi, lex credendi. And if that is the way we go, it would indeed be a horrid thing–a very horrid thing.

I could get behind a revision of the Book of Common Prayer if I trusted that we were committed to translating into contemporary idiom the prayer and worship (with its basic theology) we have received and that has indeed shaped us for generations. But, appeals to the continual movement of the Holy Spirit among us do not give me much confidence.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Communion, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament & Benediction


“Taste and see that the Lord is good” – Psalm 34:8

Communion

Along with Baptism, Eucharist is the foundational Sacrament of the Church. It is where we return again and again to meet Jesus. Anglicans have typically been wary of trying to explain how Jesus is present in the Sacrament, but we have affirmed that, however mysteriously, he is present, really and tangibly. And visibly. We receive Jesus in the Bread and Wine of Communion and taste his goodness. Through it we are woven more deeply in our communion with the life and love of the Trinity and woven more deeply in communion with one another. And we are transformed.


Adoration

The conviction that Jesus is really present in the Bread and Wine of Eucharist leads us to treat the
consecrated elements with care and reverence. Almost from the beginning some of the Sacrament was set aside–reserved–in churches for those who were unable to be present at Eucharist. In the Middle Ages, Christians began to extend the reverence for the Sacrament beyond the Eucharist by praying before the reserved Sacrament. This led to the practice of adoration in which believers sit or kneel in prayer in the presence of the Sacrament–in the presence of Jesus. There, they can gaze in adoration at the one who loves us so much–Jesus, mysteriously present in the outward and visible sign of the Sacrament. It is another way to commune with the one whose love evokes ours.

Vision Restored

In a secular society such as ours, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament can seem quite strange. But, its strangeness might actually be a reason it is a valuable and instructive practice in our context. Whether we like it or not, and in spite of ourselves, our imaginations have been shaped to see the world secularly. We experience God, more or less, but we tend to engage creation and other people as though they are drained of sacredness.

But, that is not the Christian vision. The Christian vision is that all creation and every human being is sacramental. The universe, including all humanity, is a vast interlocking web of glory, charged with the grandeur of God. All things participate in and manifest God. Not just grand vistas and glorious sunsets, but every tree, plant, and animal. And especially each human being along with the whole human community. Creation vibrates with God who is in, with, and under it all, sustaining and cherishing everything. The stuff of creation, like some bread and wine, can bear the Presence of God. Jesus came to heal the damage done to all of this by sin and to restore our ability to see all of creation, including every human being, with God’s delight.

In a secular age it can be hard to hold onto that vision. We have mostly lost it. Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is one means of regaining that vision. When we gaze at the Host in the monstrance, we see Jesus. But, it might also be a lens through which we begin to see the rest of the world and each person sacramentally, as something holy, to be engaged with care and reverence.

Benediction


Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament can be done simply, alone or in small groups wherever the Sacrament is reserved. But, it can also be a more formal liturgy that includes the celebrant blessing the assembly using a monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament. The word “benediction” comes from the Latin word meaning “blessing.” Jesus came to bless us. So, it is fitting to end our adoration with a benediction from the one whom we adore. But, of course, it never ends there. We who have been blessed are to go forth bearing that blessing to the world.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

God's Love is Not Enough (John 3:16)


"For God so loved the world . . ."

So Jesus says in the 3rd chapter of the Gospel of John

I saw a bumper sticker once that said, “God loves you. No exceptions.” I believe this is so. And I believe that just accepting that can be life-changing (see here and here). It makes a huge difference to understand that, when God looks upon you, it is with eyes of love. I know there are some who have 'tapes' recorded deeply in their hearts telling them that they are not lovable. And I appreciate that the sentiment of the bumper sticker is addressing the reality that there are groups of people who have been made to feel as though they are somehow the exception to God’s love. So, it is important to remember that when Jesus said, “God so loved the world,” that includes everyone. Every. One. “God so loved the world” – no exceptions.

But, by itself, slogan on the bumper sticker is inadequate. Wonderful as it is, God’s love is not enough.

Just before the justly famous line in John 3:16, Jesus says, "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” What’s that about? Clearly, it is a reference to the passage from the book of Numbers,

From Mount Hor the Israelites set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food." Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, "Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live." So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
– Numbers 21:4-9

It’s a strange passage. But, let’s start by reviewing the context. Israel was enslaved in Egypt. They were miserable. God heard their cry, called Moses to lead them, and through a series of miracles delivered them from their bondage, setting them on the path to the Promised Land. Soon after, they became impatient and ungrateful and began to complain about how God was managing their deliverance. We have here an example of that complaining.

"Why have you brought us up out of Egypt?”

“Well, because you asked me to. And because I love you and desire your good.”

“To die in the wilderness?”

“So far I have provided for you at every turn, haven’t I?”

“There is no food and no water.” That is an outright lie – or willful forgetting. God had miraculously provided water. God had rained down upon them the wonder of manna, "the grain of heaven," for their nourishment. And quail as well.

“We detest this miserable food." Now we’re getting a little closer to the truth. It’s not that they have no food, but that they are dissatisfied with the food God has provided. As the Psalmist sang,

So they ate and were well filled,
              for he gave them what they craved.

But they did not stop their craving,
    though the food was still in their mouths.
                                                (Psalm 78:29-30)

As a result they are afflicted by an infestation of poisonous snakes. But God commanded Moses to make a bronze snake and lift it up on a pole. If they looked at the pole, those who were perishing would live.

That is the story in Numbers. But, Jesus interprets the story allegorically as referring to himself as the “Son of Man” and what he accomplishes on the cross. What does that mean about Jesus, about us, and about God’s love?

The Hebrews in the wilderness is, as usual, representative of the attitude of humanity in general, And of each one of us. It is our story. Are we not impatient with God and one another? An early church theologian, Ephrem the Syrian, suggested that impatience might be the sin that started it all. He wrote that God all along intended us to have a share in his divinity. But, Adam and Eve, at the suggestion of the Serpent, were impatient with God’s timing and seized the fruit the serpent promised would make them like God.

Are we not often ungrateful? Discontent with enough? And more than enough? Are we not inclined to believe we are our own and what we own is ours alone without regard for God and others? All that I have, moment by moment, I receive from God – whether I receive it gratefully or not. All creation and every person I encounter is the gift of God to be received with gratitude. But much of the time I turn my heart from God and from most others. I detest this miserable food.

Like Adam and Eve we listen to the Serpent in our impatience and ingratitude. We are ungrateful for the good things God has provided, always craving more – often enough at the expense of others. And we are ungrateful for the gift of our neighbor and the stranger who just might be messengers to us from God. And as with Israel, that turning of our hearts from God and others gives birth to the serpents of sin in our hearts, the poisonous serpents of our own impatience and ingratitude, our own envy and enmity, our own unlove. God loves us. But, our spiritual snakes make us unable to receive that love or mirror it back or reflect it adequately to one another. The serpents of our own hearts bite us and bite those around us. And we perish.

And worse, we have become addicted to the poison of our own serpents. Like an alcoholic, we are addicted to the very thing that causes us to perish. This might sound harsh, but that is because we take too lightly our own failure to attend to God and to one another, our failure to love, our lack of true generosity and hospitality. And when we turn our hearts from God, our hearts begin to breed the serpents of sin. And we perish.

Still worse, we are rather fond of our own nest of spiritual snakes and do not really believe they are snakes. We mistake their poison for an elixir of power. We both hate and love our snakes and are not sure we want to be rid of them. We cling to our suspicion of God and others, our resentments, our self-love, pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony and lust. God loves us. But, we resent and fear the awesome love of God that would extract the snakes and poison we have come to love. And we perish.

We are unable to help ourselves. That is why hearing that “God loves us with no exceptions” isn’t enough. If I am trapped at the bottom of a pit full of rattle snakes, having someone shout from the top, “I love you,” isn’t all I need. Even if that one jumps into the pit with me to tell me how much I am loved, that only does me so much good. No, I need deliverance. I need someone who can extract the poison. I need an antidote. I need someone who will come into my heart and drive out the serpents like Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland. We need God to “take away the serpents from us.” The serpents in the Numbers 21 are an outward and visible manifestation of our inward and spiritual impatience, ingratitude, and selfishness. But, in the story from Numbers, God provided a means of healing through the bronze serpent attached to a pole for the people to look upon and be healed. Jesus claims that, lifted up on the cross, he will be the means of the antidote to the spiritual poison that infects us all. God loves you. No Exceptions. But, God has not left it at that. In Jesus Christ, God has also acted for your healing and deliverance,


This is the heart of the Gospel, not, ‘God is Love’ – a precious truth, but affirming no divine act for our redemption. God so loved that he gave; of course the words indicate the cost to the Father’s heart. He gave; it was an act, not only a continuing mood of generosity, it was an act at a particular time and place.

Pieter Lastman
"Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so was the Son of Man lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” God has provided the means of our redemption, our deliverance, our healing, and our restoration. God does not love us and leave us as we are, beset by the serpents of our hearts. He has acted on our behalf to drive out the snakes and heal us of their venom. Crux Est Mundi Medicina – the cross is the medicine of the world. “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ”(Ephesians 2:4).

God loves you. No exceptions. But the really good news is, "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Turn your heart to him and in trusting belief receive the gift of God and allow the Holy Spirit to deal with your snakes and their venom.

See also:

All You Need is Love – or Maybe Not


Saturday, May 5, 2018

All you need is love – or maybe not


“All you need is love, love; love is all you need.” So sang the Beatles. I saw a bumper-sticker once affirming a similar sentiment: “My religion is kindness.” My first thought upon seeing this was a twinge of guilt and sadness, because I took it to imply an indictment on Christianity which many have experienced as less than kind. But, Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” and “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The measure of our faithfulness to Jesus is loving others with love like his. And St. Paul affirms that love is kind. So, when people think of Christianity, they should immediately think, “Ah, yes, the religion of kindness.” That they don’t is a scandal.

But, upon a little more reflection, something else occurred to me regarding the bumper-sticker. “My religion is kindness” suggests that I need not be bothered by all the other trappings of religion – ideas about God, creeds, doctrines, prayer, worship, church, etc.  Love and kindness is all there is to it. But is it? It certainly is an attractive notion. But, is it that simple?

The Christian religion – the religion of love and kindness – asserts that the answer is ‘no’. Christians can affirm that the Beatles and bumper-sticker are definitely onto something. Our story is that the world was created out of God’s love and humans, created in the image of God, are created for love. And we do well to remind ourselves of that basic truth. Our fundamental rule of life is Jesus’ new commandment to love one another as he has loved us – serving one another self-sacrificially.

To be followers of Jesus – to be his disciples – means to pursue the disciplines of love, e.g., humility, kindness, gentleness, reverence, forgiveness, mercy, patience, hospitality, generosity, reconciliation, self-control. We need to take that much more seriously. The classic spiritual disciplines like prayer, worship, fasting, Sabbath, etc. are meant to open us to receiving more of God’s love and making us better channels of that love.

But that is only part of the story and insufficient by itself. Our problem is not simply that we need to know that love (or kindness) is the most important thing. If it was, then Jesus and the Church would be unnecessary. The Christian insight is that our problem is much deeper and more serious than that. Our problem is our inability to love rightly. Or even as well as we want.

We don’t know how to love as we ought. In her book about St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Dorothy Day wrote, “We want to grow in love but we do not know how. Love is a science, a knowledge, and we lack it.” We confuse other things with love – co-dependence, manipulation, conflict avoidance, being nice, or even being mean and calling it love. We sometimes define love in the framework of modern western individualism. We decide that some are worthy our kindness and love and others, not so much.

We do not just need to know that love, or kindness, is the point. We need to know what that means. That is why Jesus doesn’t just say, “love one another”. He defines love. In fact he declares himself the very definition of love. To know what love is, we look to Jesus. That means we need to make the effort to know Jesus and his way of love rather than how we might imagine him to be. By becoming familiar with the Gospels for starters.

And what is that way? It is not primarily about how we feel, though Jesus does demonstrate deep feeling toward others. Love is about desiring good for others. It is the way of self-sacrificial service. It is the way of forbearing, cheek-turning patience. It is love, not just of family, friends, political allies, fellow citizens or other Christians, but extends to all neighbors – and enemies. It is indiscriminate, profligate love like the love God demonstrates in the rain that falls on the good and the wicked alike. It is mercy. And our mercy is to be perfect as God is perfect.

I can pat myself on the back for being loving. But, if I look to Jesus as the definition of love, I know that where he has gone I have not gone. I And cannot go on my own.

And that is another part of our deep and serious problem. We know love is what we are supposed to be about. But we aren’t very good at it. We’re not good at the kind of love Jesus is about. But we’re not even very good at love by more mundane measures. If we were, the divorce rate would be much lower. We would all have wonderful, uncomplicated relationships with our parents and children and extended families. The church would not be divided.

Our love is skewed by our own fears, suspicions, and insecurities. Our love limps due to our own emotional wounds. We are masters of rationalization by which we excuse or deny our own failure to love. We convince ourselves that our words and actions are loving when those on the receiving end often experience them as less than loving. We are often selfish and self-absorbed. We are busy, distracted, inattentive, and indifferent. 

Most of us are aware of the painful realization that even our attempts to love those who are near and dear to us are so broken that we end up hurting one another. The Beatles sang, “All you need is love.” And then they broke up. As St. Paul famously wrote in Romans 7:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me . . . 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.

Our religion is kindness – the love of Jesus is kindness and then some. But, we are, to one degree or another, failures at love. That is why I am glad one of the lines in the Apostles’ Creed is “I believe in the forgiveness of sins” (“We believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins” in the Nicene Creed). I need love. But, that is not all I need. I also need forgiveness for my failure to love. I need to be honest about that failure and repent. The assurance of forgiveness frees us to do that.

Jesus doesn’t just say love one another. Jesus doesn’t even stop at showing us what that means. Jesus bears all our unlove on the cross and makes a way for us to enter into the forgiveness of God who is love (1 John 4:8). Receiving that forgiveness does not just free us from the guilt we feel for our failure to love. It frees us to love better and more fully.

I need love. I also need freedom. I need to be set free from all that keeps me from loving. We need deliverance and healing because we are bound by our fears, insecurities, and all the emotional wounds that get in the way of our loving freely and fully. And it is freedom and healing that Jesus brings. Not all at once perhaps. Not without our participation. But, by the power of his Holy, healing, liberating Spirit he will work in our hearts to that end.

That transformation can begin now. But, it will not be complete until the End that we hear about in the Revelation to John when there is a new heaven and a new earth. The world is a mess. We are a mess. We are not very good at giving or receiving love. And the mess of the world is testimony to that. Our fractured or broken relations are testimony to that. The violence and destruction that is so much a part of the world is testimony to that.

Even more troubling, we know that while each of us loves in more or less broken ways, for some the ability to give and receive love is more profoundly broken – people suffering from personality disorders, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and other mental illnesses that will only experience partial healing this side of the kingdom. "All you need is love" and "My religion is kindness" are inadequate in light of such brokenness. Without the hope of healing, that is just sentimentalism. There are therapists who work to bring emotional and psychological healing. But, for many that healing will only be partial. Christians are still celebrating Easter and the resurrection of Jesus. His resurrection is the first fruits, the down payment, on the promise that all creation will be healed, restored, transfigured, and renewed by and in his love.

And that is another reason why we need Jesus. We need the resurrection hope of healing and restoration.

“My religion is kindness” is a good start. But it is not enough.

“All you need is love” is a good start. But it is not enough. It is mot all we need.

We need Jesus.

We need to know what kindness and love look like. They look like Jesus.

We need forgiveness for our failure to love. Jesus cries out on our behalf, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

We need freedom from and healing of all those things in us that get in the way of and sabotage our being able to love as we desire to love. Jesus gives us his Holy Spirit to heal, liberate and empower us to love.

And we need hope that love triumphs in the end. Jesus’ resurrection is the assurance that we will all know resurrection and restoration.

That is the promise of Jesus. That is the promise of Christianity.

That is the promise of a faith that is kindness and love – and much, much more.

We are called to live into that promise.

We are called to live with love at the center. Jesus is at that center and he will enable us to grow in that love.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

See also:


Friday, April 13, 2018

Yossel Rakover's Appeal to God


Jews captured during the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Warsaw, Poland, April 19-May 16, 1943. 
(National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Md.)


Yesterday was Holocaust Remembrance Day which corresponds to the 27th day of Nisan on the Hebrew calendar. It marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Soon after the end of World War II, Zvi Kolitz wrote an imagined prayer of a faithful Jew in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust reaffirming his faith in God and Judaism in spite of all. It is quite haunting, but also, in its way, hopeful. Here are some excerpts:

. .. I believe in You, God of Israel, even though You have done everything to stop me from believing in You. I believe in Your laws even if I cannot excuse Your actions. My relationship to You is not the relationship of a slave to his master but rather that of a pupil to his teacher. I bow my head before Your greatness, but will not kiss the lash with which You strike me.

You say, I know, that we have sinned, O Lord. It must surely be true!  And therefore we are punished? I can understand that too! But I should like You to tell me whether there is any sin in the world deserving such a punishment as the punishment we have received!

You assert that You will repay our enemies? I am convinced of it! Repay them without mercy? I have no doubt of that either! I should like You to tell me, however – is there any punishment in the world compensating for the crimes that have been committed against us?

You say, I know, that it is no longer a question of sin and punishment, but rather a situation in which Your countenance is veiled, in which humanity is abandoned to its evil instincts. But I should like to ask You, O Lord – and this question burns in me like a consuming fire – what more, O what more, must transpire before You unveil Your countenance again to the world?

I want to say to You that now, more than in any previous period of our eternal path of agony, we, we the tortured, the humiliated, the buried alive and burned alive, we the insulted, the mocked, the lonely, the forsaken by God and man – we have the right to know what are the limits of Your forbearance?

I should like to say something more: Do not put the rope under too much strain lest, alas, it snap! The test to which You have put us is so severe, so unbearably severe, that You should – You must – forgive those members of Your people who, in their misery, have turned from You.

. . . I tell You this because I do believe in You, because I believe in You more strongly than ever, because now I know that You are My Lord, because after all You are not, You cannot possibly be after all the God of those whose deeds are the most horrible expression of ungodliness!

. . . I die peacefully, but not complacently; persecuted but not enslaved; embittered but not cynical; a believer but not a supplicant; a lover of God but not blind amen-sayer of His.

I have followed Him even when He rejected me. I have followed His commandments even when He has castigated me for it; I have loved Him and I love Him even when He hurls me to the earth, tortures me to death, makes me the object of shame and ridicule.

. . . God of Israel . . . You have done everything to make me stop believing in You. Now lest it seem to You that You will succeed by these tribulations to drive me from the right path, I notify You, my God and God of my father, that it will not avail You in the least!  You may insult me, You may castigate me, You may take from me all that I cherish and hold dear in the world, You may torture me to death – I shall believe in You, I shall love You no matter what You do to test me!

And these are my last words to You, my wrathful God: nothing will avail You in the least. You have done everything to make me renounce You, to make me lose faith in You, but I die exactly as I have lived, a believer!

Eternally praised be the God of the sea, the God of vengeance, of truth and of law, Who will soon show His face to the world again and shake its foundations with his almighty voice.

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.
Into your hands, O Lord, I consign my soul.

– From Out of the Whirlwind, A. H. Friedlander, ed.
(There actually was a Yossel Rakover who died in the Holocaust)

Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Holy Abandon of Maria Yudina

I watched the movie, The Death of Stalin, last week. It is a grim, but intelligent and funny comedy about the scramble for power–and survival–by his inner circle of scheming toadies like Beria, Krushchev, and Molotov. It highlights the corrosive effects of totalitarianism and government by fear and death. It reveals the pettiness and small-mindedness of the people motivated by fear and the pursuit of power. And it shows the potency of any kind of groupthink while mocking how absurd such thinking looks from the outside.

In the midst of all of this, but also living outside of it, there is one character who does not play the game, who is not motivated by fear or the desire for power. She is the pianist, Maria Yudina. At one point, Krushchev asks Yudina if she is afraid–as he believes she should be. Like he and everyone is. She says she is not because she has faith in God and believes in everlasting life. That baffles Krushchev. But, if frees her. Free from fear she is also  free to speak the truth, even to Stalin. She lives by a different set of rules, a different narrative, a different pattern. As St. Paul encourages in his letter to the Romans, she is not conformed to the pattern of this world, but has been transformed by the renewing of her mind. In short, she demonstrates a sort of holiness.

Several years ago I read a book in which the shape of Maria Yudina’s holiness is told. What follows is from The Ladder of the Beatitudes by Jim Forest which I highly recommend.

It was Maria Yudina’s fate to live through the Russian revolution and its aftermath, seeing many of her dearest friends and colleagues disappear into the Gulag. A fearless Christian, she wore a cross visibly even while teaching or performing in public – an affirmation of belief at a time when the price of a display of religious faith could be one’s work, one’s freedom, even one’s life. She lived an ascetic life, wearing no cosmetics, spending little on herself, and dressing simply. “I had the impression that Yudina wore the same black dress during her entire long life, it was so worn and soiled,” said Shostakovich.(50) [this and other references are from Testimony: The Memoirs of Shostakovich, Solomon Volkov, ed.]

For Maria Yudina, music was a way of proclaiming her faith in a period when presses were more carefully policed than pianos. “Yudina saw music in a mystical light. For instance, she saw Bach’s Goldberg Variations as a series of illustrations to the Holy Bible,” said Shostakovich. “She always played as though she were giving a sermon.”(51)

She not only performed piano works but paused during concerts to read the poetry of such writers as Boris Pasternak, who were unable to publish at the time.

She was notorious among friends for her inability to keep anything of value for herself. “She came to see me once,” Shostakovich recalled, “and said that she was living in a miserable little room where she could neither work nor rest. So I signed a petition, I went to see various bureaucrats, I asked a lot of people to help, I took up a lot of people’s time. With great difficulty we got an apartment for Yudina. You would think that everything was fine and that life could go on. A short time later she came to me again and asked for help in obtaining an apartment for herself. ‘What? But we got an apartment for you. What do you need another one for?’ ‘I gave the apartment away to a poor old woman.’”(52)

Shostakovich heard that friends had made a loan to Yudina of five rubles. “I broke a window in my room, it’s drafty and so cold, I can’t live like that,” she had told them. “Naturally, they gave her the money—it was winter. A while later they visited her, and it was as cold in her room as it was outside and the broken window was stuffed with a rag. ‘How can this be, Maria Veniaminovna? We gave you money to fix the window.’ And she replied, ‘I gave it for the needs of the church’”(53)

Shostakovich, who regarded religion as superstition, didn’t approve. “The church may have various needs,” he protested, “but the clergy doesn’t sit around in the cold, after all, with broken windows. Self-denial should have a rational limit.” He accused her of behaving like a yurodivye, the Russian word for a holy fool, a form of sanctity in the eyes of the church.

Her public profession of faith was not without cost. Despite her genius as a musician, from time to time she was banned from concert halls and not once in her life was she allowed to travel outside Russia. Shostakovich remembered:

Her religious position was under constant . . . attack (at the music school in Leningrad). Once [some officials] rushed into Yudina’s class and demanded of Yudina: “Do you believe in God?” She replied in the affirmative. “Was she promoting religious propaganda among her students?” She replied that the Constitution didn’t forbid it. A few days later a transcript of the conversation made by “an unknown person” appeared in a Leningrad paper, which also printed a caricature—Yudina in nun’s robes surrounded by kneeling students. And the caption was something about preachers appearing at the Conservatoire. . . Naturally, Yudina was dismissed after that. (54)

From time to time she all but signed her own death warrant. Perhaps the most remarkable story in Shostakovich’s memoir concerns one such incident:

In his final years, Stalin seemed more and more like a madman, and I think his superstition grew. The “Leader and Teacher” sat locked up in one of his many dachas, amusing himself in bizarre ways. . . . [He] didn’t let anyone in to see him for days at a time. He listened to the radio a lot. Once Stalin called the Radio committee . . . and asked if they had a record of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, which had been heard on the radio the day before. “Played by Yudina,” he added. They told Stalin that of course they had it. Actually, there was no record, the concert has been live. But they were afraid to say no to Stalin, no one ever knew what the consequences might be. A human life meant nothing to him. All you could do was agree, submit, be a yes-man, a yes-man to a madman.

Stalin demanded that they send the record with Yudina’s performance of the Mozart to his dacha. The committee panicked, but they had to do something. They called in Yudina and an orchestra and recorded that night. Everyone was shaking with fright, except for Yudina, naturally. But, she was a special case, that one, the ocean was only knee-deep for her.

Yudina later told me that they had to send the conductor home, he was so scared he couldn’t think. They called another conductor who trembled and got everything mixed up, confusing the orchestra. Only a third conductor was in any shape to finish the recording.

I think this is a unique event in the history of recording-I mean, changing conductors three times in one night. Anyway, the record was ready by morning. They made one single copy in record time and sent it to Stalin. Now that was a record. A record in yes-ing.

Soon after, Yudina received an envelope with twenty thousand rubles. She was told it came on the express orders of Stalin. Then she wrote him a letter. I know about this letter from her, I know that the story seems improbable. Yudina had many quirks, but I can say this – she never lied. I’m certain that her story is true. Yudina wrote something like this in her letter: “I thank you, Joseph Vissarionovich, for your aid. I will pray for you day and night and ask the Lord to forgive your great sins before the people and the country. The Lord is merciful and He’ll forgive you. I gave the money to the church that I attend."

And Yudina sent this suicidal letter to Stalin. He read it and didn’t say a word, they expected at least a twitch of the eyebrow. Naturally, the order to arrest Yudina was prepared and the slightest grimace would have been enough to wipe away the last traces of her. But Stalin was silent and set the letter aside in silence. The anticipated movement of the eyebrows didn’t come. Nothing happened to Yudina. They say that her recording of the Mozart was on the record player when the “Leader and Teacher” was found dead in his dacha. It was the last thing he had listened to.(55)

Shostakovich found Yudina’s open display of belief foolish, yet one senses within his complaints both envy and awe. In a time of heart-stopping fear, here was someone as fearless as St. George before the dragon, someone who preferred giving away her few rubles to repairing her own broken window, who “published” with her own voice the poems of banned writers, who dared to tell Stalin he was not beyond God’s mercy and forgiveness. She had a large and pure heart. No wonder her grave in Moscow has been a place of pilgrimage ever since her death.
[The Ladder of the Beatitudes by Jim Forest, p. 99-103]

May we, in our day, have the faith and courage of Maria Yudina and live with the holy abandon in light of the Truth and Love that sets us free.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
(Romans 12:1-2)



Saturday, March 31, 2018

Of First Importance

I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.
(1 Corinthians 15:3-4)


In a post during Holy Week, I reflected on Jesus’ words from the cross, “My God,my God, why have you forsaken me?” in light of the horrific story of Christian Choate who was kept in a dog cage and eventually beaten to death by his father. Such stories are the test of anything we say about God and faith.

The Christian story of Incarnation and cross claims the promise of God’s solidarity with his creatures caught in the web of sin, brokenness, and death. The credal affirmation that the Son of God has descended into hell is hopeful. God has poured the potent, relentless mercy of Jesus’ presence into every hell, on earth or beyond. There is no one, no place, and no situation that is god-forsaken. Hopeful as that is, is it enough? What more can we say about the good news of Jesus Christ in light of the tragic story of Christian Choate and those of so many others?

In his first letter to the young church in Corinth, Paul reminds them of what he considered of first importance, what he in turn had received – that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.

Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures
 I suspect few of us have done anything as egregious as Christian Choate’s father. But each of us has failed to love as we are meant to love. Each of us has been negligent of God and neighbor. Each of us has contributed in ways large or small to the mess of the world.

And yet, in spite of that, God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). William Temple wrote,
In the most true sense [God] loves me even while I sin; but it cannot be said too strongly that there is a wrath in God against my sinning; God's Will is set one way and mine is set against it. There is a collision of wills; and God's Will is not passive in that collision.

At the cross is the collision of those wills in which God’s love overcomes all our unlove – all of our envy and enmity, all of our indifference. God poured out his love on the hard wood of the cross and thereby entered into the worst humans can do and made a way for us to enter into his forgiveness. There is no one – including Christian Choate's dad – that is beyond the reach of his saving embrace where there is forgiveness.

I suppose, in ways we do not know or comprehend, we have to accept that Christian Choate, as part of the human web of sin, needed that forgiveness as well. But that is where I think an exclusive focus on the cross and our need for forgiveness starts to fall short. Is it really satisfactory if all we can say about Christian Choate is we hope he had an opportunity to say the ‘Jesus Prayer’ and receive God’s forgiveness before his dad beat him to death? Especially given that we have no evidence that he had ever even heard anything about Jesus? And if he didn’t? Were those horrific thirteen years just a brief prelude to an eternity of torture in hell? Is it satisfactory to say, as some might, that, if he didn’t repent, it was due to his being predestined not to do so? That his brief life of suffering was just a small part of the larger story of human sin and he only received in this life a foretaste of the penalty of sin to be exacted by God on all the reprobate? That hardly seems worthy of the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

But, neither is it satisfactory to say, as an any honest atheist must, that what happened to Christian Choate is just one example of the kinds of things that are coded into the world into which we have been born. It is what it is. Any moral outrage about it is just a matter of inherited taste.

The Christian hope is more than that. In Christ, God has addressed more than our guilt. In Christ, God has addressed the deep wound of humanity, and of human history and, indeed, all of creation.

Few of us have suffered anything as terrible as Christian Choate – though my wife, who is a therapist, told me recently that as many as one in three girls and one in six boys are sexually molested. Physical and emotional abuse are also more common than we like to think. So, maybe more of us have such stories of suffering and sorrow than we usually let on. But even if we have avoided abuse of that nature, each of us bears the wounds and brokenness endemic to humanity. We don’t just need forgiveness. We need healing.

It is important to note that healing was as significant a part Jesus’ ministry as was his call to repent and offer of forgiveness. His mercy included both. So did his dying and rising.

He was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures
 Handing on to the Corinthians that which he considered of first importance, Paul referred to the resurrection using the exact language he used for the death of Christ suggesting that the two go together as two aspects of one salvific intervention. The Cross and Easter the Resurrection are two sides of the one coin of the world’s redemption.

In some theologies and popular pieties Jesus’ resurrection is treated as an addendum to what is considered the really important thing which is Jesus’ death on the cross for our sins. The resurrection is sometimes reduced to little more than proof of Jesus’ divinity or the assurance that there might be life after death. At most it is God’s vindication of Jesus’ life and message. Though I emphatically affirm all of these, the resurrection is also much more.

The crucifixion and resurrection include the promise of healing, transformation, restoration, and new creation. I am persuaded that that is true for the past as well as the present or the future. As Wolfhart Pannenberg has written,

The kingdom of God embraces the earlier generations of mankind as well as the coming ones, and hope for the coming of the rule of God does not only expect salvation for the last generation; it is directed towards the transfiguration of all epochs of human history through the fire of divine judgment, which is one with the light of the glory of God.  

Similarly, Michael Ramsey wrote of Jesus’ Transfiguration as a foreshadowing of the Transfiguration of all things in the General Resurrection that is the world’s destiny in Christ,
Confronted with a universe more terrible than ever in the blindness and the destructiveness of its potentialities, men and women must be led to Christian faith, not as a panacea of progress or as an otherworldly solution unrelated to history, but as a gospel of Transfiguration. Such a gospel transcends the world and yet speaks directly to the immediate here-and-now. He who is transfigured is the Son of Man; and as he discloses on the holy mountain another world, he reveals that no part of created things, and no moment of created time lies outside the power of the Spirit, who is Lord, to change it from glory to glory.

Our hope of the resurrection of the body is not just a hope for individual escape from death. It is that. But, it is also the expectation that the body of humanity, stretched out and tortured on the rack of history will be restored. In the final resurrection and restoration of all things (Acts 3:21), it is not just the memory of Christian Choate’s agony that will be redeemed. The trauma, torture, and terror of human history twill not just be forgotten, but redeemed. The very reality of it will be caught up and transfigured–scars and all–in a way we can barely fathom.

In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has broken open the cage of sin and death and decay that holds us all. The resurrection of Jesus is a ray of light piercing the cloud of Death that is cast over all people (Isaiah 25:6-9) guaranteeing that the world's story ends in resurrection and transformation. Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died (1 Corinthians 15:20). As Paul insists in Romans 8, that is a promise for all of creation as well. All of creation will be renewed.

In the meantime, creation continues to groan under the reality of death and decay. And not just the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:23).

The Gardener come to repair and restore the garden
Mary Magdalene, who the scriptures point out followed Jesus because he healed her (Mark 16:9), not because she had any unusual need of forgiveness (despite later tradition to the contrary), came to honor his tortured dead body at the tomb. There she found the grave empty. She assumed someone had taken the body. What else would she suspect? She asks one she takes to be a gardener where they have taken the body of the one she had hoped would redeem Israel and the world. When the gardener speaks her name, she recognizes that he is in fact Jesus who had been dead, but is now risen and more alive than before.

But, in fact, Mary had rightly identified him the first time. Jesus is the Gardener, come to restore the Garden of creation and history that has been infected with the thorns and thistles of sin and death that have made it a curse for so many to be born (Genesis 3). According to the ancient story, the curse began with a tree in a garden. And the healing and restoration begins with a tree (the cross) and a garden.

The fullness of the restoration of all things remains a hope of the future. We do not pretend that all is already well. In Christ we have received the first fruits. We live in expectation. But, if we allow the Gardener to work in our lives, forgiveness and healing can begin now. New creation can begin now. Transformation can begin now. And as his Spirit moves in and through us we can participate with him in the healing of the land and live now in the shade of another tree in another garden at the heart of the City of the New Creation– the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations (Revelation 22:2).

The tragic life and death of Christian Choate reminds us that we still walk in the valley of the shadow of death. Sin, with all its violence and greed, is still present. But the shadow of death has been transformed into the shadow of the cross, backlit with the hope of resurrection. Christ has died for our sins and was raised on the third day. In that two-fold event, God' mercy has entered into the deepest, darkest human reality of sin and suffering, like that of Christian Choate. And he has broken out of that hell with the promise of forgiveness, healing, and new creation. Let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

See also: