Monday, February 29, 2016

Suffering and Belief in God

Cathedral of St. Paul, Fond du Lac, WI,
Lent 3, February 28, 2016

Why do you believe in God?

Why do you believe in God? Maybe you’ve had some mystical, burning-bush experience like Moses in this morning’s Old Testament lesson. Maybe you’ve had a dramatic conversion experience and you can point to the difference God has made in your life.  Maybe you are struck by the beauty and grandeur of creation. Or maybe, you were just raised that way and you don’t know any better. All of these reasons are fine and good, as well as whatever other reasons you might have. But for me, when it gets right down to it, I believe in God mostly because of the suffering and injustice in the world. 

I know that the suffering and injustice in the world is supposed to be the great stumbling block to faith in God. But, I’m just peculiar enough to find that to be the starting point for my belief. Let me explain. When I was around 30 years old, I came very close to giving up on Christianity and declaring myself an atheist. When I tried on being an atheist I found that as an atheist I would be forced to live a contradiction – a contradiction between my mind and my heart. Either I went with my mind and I followed the logic of atheism to its utmost conclusions, or I followed my heart. But the two could not be followed together. 

I tried to be an atheist and followed the logic of my mind I was forced to conclude that the beginning of all that is, and the beginning of all that I am, was an accident.  The end of all that is and all that I am will also be, more or less, an accident. Everything in between is a meaningless event suspended between two accidents. Nothing, ultimately, has any meaning. Nothing, ultimately, has any purpose. All we are left with is our personal preferences and prejudices as to what is good and what is not so good. I was forced to agree with Albert Camus who wrote that if we believe in nothing, then it does not matter ultimately if we stoke the fires of the crematorium, as did the Nazis, or if we serve the lepers in Africa, as did Albert Schweitzer. It all comes to the same thing.

The question “How can there be a good God when there is so much suffering in the world?” is a serious question. I do not mean to make light of hard realities that provoke it. But, is a parallel question that is just as challenging for an atheist, “If there is no God and no meaning, why do I care about the suffering in the world?” Why should I? In fact one of the things I felt when trying on atheism was a sense of relief – I didn’t have to care so much.

When a pack of wolves attacks and kills an elk calf we do not feel any moral outrage. Morally, it is a matter of indifference. That’s what wolves do. But, why do we feel moral outrage when a gunman shoots teenagers at a high school. Why are we outraged by the violence of war? When animals brutalize each other it is a matter of moral indifference. Why are we indignant when humans brutalize each other or even other animals? For an atheist there is no logical reason to give the lives of humans priority over the lives of other animals. We are all just the accidental byproducts of evolution and history. Our inclination to feel otherwise is only conditioned sentimentalism.

But, that, as the Psalmist says, is “a barren and dry land where there is no water” and humans cannot live there. That is why it is hard to find an honest atheist. However much our minds might say that there is no ultimate meaning, purpose, or value to life, our hearts cry out, “No!” Our hearts insist that there is meaning. There is purpose. Life has value. It’s not a matter of indifference. When a child is abused, tortured and killed, my outrage is not just a matter of my own personal preference. The response of my heart is in tune with the response at the heart of the universe. The offense I take at the slaughter of innocents, or for that matter the accidental deaths along the way, is not just an offense against my personal taste. It is an offense against the very fabric of reality.  That offense, the offense we take in the face suffering and injustice, does not prove that there is a God, but it at least pointed me toward God.

But, not just any God. The only god that makes sense to me in light of the reality of suffering is the God of Jesus who is also the God of Moses and of Israel. We just hear the story of Moses and the burning bush. Out of the burning bush – out of the burning heart of reality – Moses heard, “I have observed the misery of my people . . . I have heard their cry . . . I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them.” The God of the Bible is not aloof and indifferent to the suffering and injustice of this world. That God’s commitment to engaging misery and suffering culminates in his coming along side us in the flesh in the person of Jesus.

I’ve been thinking about all of this because in this morning’s gospel, some people come to Jesus, and ask, “What about the people who were murdered by Pilate and whose blood was mingled with their sacrifices?  Were they killed because of their sins?” Jesus responded, “No.” “What about the people who were killed in the accident in Siloam when the tower fell on them?  Did they die because of their sins?” Again, Jesus answers, “No.” According to Jesus, God is not in the payback business. The God revealed in Jesus is not about karma. God about grace, redemption, and transformation.

Jesus does not offer a nice and neat answer to why there is suffering. But, then Jesus rarely seems interested in answering our questions. He is more interested in questioning us. His response in this morning’s gospel is uncomfortably blunt. In essence he says “Those deaths were tragic. But, we are all going to die, maybe sooner, maybe later. So, today is the day to start living our lives in sync with the burning Heart of the universe. That heart burns with mercy and love. Begin now learning to love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus does not answer our questions about why there is suffering. He does not attempt to get God off the hook. Which is, of course, the point of the Gospel. On the cross, God puts himself on the hook. God, in Jesus Christ, enters into the mess that we have made of the world. God, in Christ, on the cross, enfolds and absorbs the pain and suffering of the world.  He transforms it into resurrection. There is the promise that we too will be transformed, our pain, our suffering, will be transformed. By his wounds, we will be healed. 

In the parable this morning, Jesus recognizes that, as the bumper sticker used to say, “‘manure’ happens”. But manure is fertilizer. If you look at your own life, often it is the hurts and the sufferings that cause spiritual growth. I do not think Jesus is suggesting that God causes the suffering in our lives. Rather, God transforms it.

French poet, Paul Caudel, wrote, “Jesus did not come to remove suffering, or to explain it away. He came to fill it with His presence.” Jesus does not explain suffering. He fills it with his presence and the promise of its transformation in the final resurrection of which his is the foretaste.

We live in a world of great suffering, of great injustices. It can be a hard place. It can be a hard place to believe in God, especially the generic God of human imagination. But the God we know in Jesus Christ is not a God of our own imagining. He is the God of the cross.

William Temple, who was Archbishop of Canterbury during WWII, wrote,

The revelation of God’s dealing with human sin shows God enduring every depth of anguish for the sake of His Children. . . All that we can suffer of physical or mental anguish is within the divine experience. . . He does not leave this world to suffer while He remains at ease apart; all suffering of the world is His.


Only a God in whose perfect Being pain has its place can win and hold our worship.

In Jesus  – on the cross and in the resurrection – heart and mind meet. And that’s a God you can believe in.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Learning to Pay Attention

Are you paying attention?

What are you paying attention to?

A monk needed to go for a day-trip to a big city, accompanied by an acquaintance. In the midst of urban’ uproar the monk claimed to have heard a cricket, though his companion did not believe him. Crossing the road and looking carefully under a tree the monk found the cricket, to the astonishment of his companion.

- You must have a superhuman hearing!

- No. My ears aren’t different from yours, said the monk. But everything depends on what you’re used to listening for.

- No! I would not be able to hear a cricket in this noise!

- It all depends on what is important to you, reiterated the monk. Let’s make a demonstration. So the monk took out few coins from his packet and dropped them on the pavement. And despite of the loud noise of the city, all the people around them turned their heads thinking that the scattered coins could have fallen from their pockets.

- Do you understand now? It all depends on what is important to people … If we watch or listen to the contentions daily news on television, our ears become accustomed only to what is ugly and evil. We become fearful and helpless! Then we’ll say: “Life is hard, people are evil, we live in an insecure and ugly world, you cannot trust anyone or anything …”

And meanwhile the crickets sing, the leaves rustle, the waters flow, and we do not hear them.

Are you paying attention? What are you paying attention to? What are you listening for? What are you looking for?

The life of the spirit is about learning to pay attention to the right things. But, this turns out to be more difficult. There are distractions and spiritual static within us and in the world around us.

Each of us carry within us some confusing combination of pride and insecurity, hope and fear which make it difficult to have accurate understandings of ourselves, to engage others with understanding and charity, and to receive from God the tough, but transforming love extended in Jesus Christ.

We live in a world that has lost its way. People are distracted and anxious. We have forgotten or ignore that there is more going on than what is in front of our noses.

People “self-medicate” by shopping for more stuff or distracting themselves with technology and entertainment or general busyness. Thus they avoid dealing with the deep and disturbing questions about the meaning of life and death.

We have been trained – catechized – to understand ourselves as no more than individual bundles of appetites to be satisfied by any means at any cost.

We allow our hopes and fears, appetites and anxieties, to be manipulated by economic and political powers.

With all that, it is hard to hear the still small voice of God declaring his delight in us as beings of immeasurable value created in his image and his mercy poured out with understanding on our brokenness and sinfulness. It requires discipline. 

Although Christians are expected to engage in spiritual disciplines all the time that enable us to receive and live God’s mercy and delight, Lent is the season when we take on particular disciplines to reduce distractions and reorient our attention. Last fall I called the Diocese of Fond du Lac to adopt a “rule of life” based on basic classic spiritual disciplines as an aid to learning to pay attention to what is worthy of our attention. My hope is that we practice it throughout the year. But, I offer it here as a potential guide to Lenten discipline .


Grateful for God’s mercy and delight that I have experienced through Jesus Christ, I desire to become more open to that mercy and delight, more open to seeing it in creation and in other people. I desire to become more of a channel of God’s mercy and delight in the world. I recognize this calls for training in attentiveness and self-control. To this end I commit to the following Rule of Life:

Worship in Community 
Worship is attending to what is worth attending to what – Who – is worthy of attention, i.e., worthship. It is orienting our attention toward God. It is delighting in God who is delightful. It is giving thanks for the gifts that God has given us. It is giving thanks for the grace and mercy God has lavished on us through Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

To enter more fully into God’s mercy and delight, I commit to embracing Sunday as a “holy day of expectation” and to join my congregation (or another) at least weekly for worship and Holy Eucharist when it is available. If I am unable to worship with a congregation on Sunday (or Saturday evening), I will pray Morning or Evening Prayer instead.

Prayer is paying attention to God, conversing with God, sharing what is on my heart, and attending to God’s presence in my heart and life. It is resting in God’s mercy and delight.

I commit to setting aside time (ideally at least 20 minutes) each day for intentional prayer in order to “be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10). This might be praying one of the Daily Offices from the Book of Common Prayer, Lectio Divina, the Jesus Prayer, Centering Prayer, etc. A portion of that time will be offered in silent attentiveness to God.

Fasting is about learning to pay attention and exercising self-control over one of our most basic appetites so we can also learn self-control over more deadly appetites, e.g., Self-absorption, Vanity, Malice, Envy, Sloth, Greed, etc.

I commit to observing every Wednesday as a fast day. This might range from abstaining from all food for the day, to abstaining from one or more meals, to abstaining from one or another sort of food or drink. It will entail some kind of sacrifice to remind me that I do not live “by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Deuteronomy 8:3/Luke 4:4). By doing so, I hope to turn my attention to God throughout the day.

Sabbath is a kind of fasting in time, i.e., fasting from busy-ness. It is a commitment to attend to God and to relationships with others. Observing Sabbath reminds me that God is God and I am not.

I commit to refraining from participating in work (as far as possible) or commerce on Sunday. I will refrain from other distractions that keep me from attending to God’s mercy and delight in my life. I will engage in activities that reflect and cultivate my delight in relationships with family and friends and with the world.

Where have I seen or experienced God’s mercy and delight today? Where might I have missed them? Did I delight in the people with whom I was engaged today? Those I thought about? Did I channel God’s mercy to others today?

I commit to daily examination: giving thanks for the mercy and delight I received and shared during the past day; and confessing whatever failures to see, receive, or extend
God’s mercy and delight.

I adopt this Rule not to prove my worthiness to God or anyone else. I adopt this Rule as an aid to growing into the full stature of Christ (Ephesians 4:13) and becoming more transparent to his mercy and delight. And I do so knowing that if/when I fail to keep it, in God’s grace I can begin again and again.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

How I Came to Change My Mind on SSU: Part 11. Romans 1 (ii) Unnatural Passions

In Romans 1:26-27, Paul writes of “degrading passions” and uses the concepts of “natural” and “unnatural.” These are important concepts in the cultural, philosophical, and theological context that shaped Paul's thought and that of the early Church. If what follows seems like a rabbit trail away from the topic at hand, hang with me. I will eventually show how I think it is relevant.

While “natural” and “unnatural” sexual intercourse is what Paul refers to in Romans 1:26-27, the New Testament and the early Church have a more expansive idea of what constitutes unnatural sinful passion. In the early Church (and the New Testament), "passions" was a technical term that referred to the spiritual agitations that well up from within us that lead us from the love, joy, and peace of God and from sharing that love, joy, and peace with one another. Many in the early Church believed that things we have come to take for granted as natural were in fact unnatural passions. For example:

The love and accumulation of possessions is unnatural

The early Church theologians took seriously Jesus’ warnings regarding the accumulation and attachment to wealth (see What Jesus Commanded, Part 8: Money & Possessions). Not only did they take Jesus (and the rest of the New Testament) at his word, they actually considered the pursuit and accumulation of wealth to be contrary to nature:

Our third struggle is against the demon of avarice, a demon clearly foreign to our nature, who only gains entry into a monk because he is lacking in faith. The other passions, such as anger and desire, seem to be occasioned by the body and in some sense implanted in us at birth. Hence they are conquered only after a long time. The sickness of avarice, on the contrary, can with diligence and attention be cut off more readily, because it enters from outside. If neglected, however, it becomes even harder to get rid of and more destructive than the other passions, for according to the Apostle it is 'the root of all evil' (1Tim. 6:10).
– John Cassion, On the Eight Vices

Anger towards others is unnatural

The early Church theologians also took seriously Jesus’ warning that anger is a species of murder (cf. Matthew 5:21-22) and Paul's description of malice as a sinful pleasure and passion (cf. Titus 3:1-7). In fact, they considered anger contrary to nature:

Anger is by nature designed for waging war with the demons and for struggling with every kind of sinful pleasure. . . But the demons, enticing toward worldly lusts, make us use anger to fight against men, which is against nature, so that the mind, thus stupefied and darkened, should become a traitor to virtues.
– Evagrios, Directions on Spiritual Training 1. To Anatolius: Tests on Active Life (From a translation of the Russian Rendition of the Philokalia)

The first virtue is detachment, that is, death in relation to every person or thing. This produces the desire for God, and this in turn gives rise to the anger that is in accordance with nature, and that flares up against all the tricks of the enemy [Satan]. Then the fear of God will establish itself within us, and through this fear love will be made manifest.
– St Isaiah the Solitary, On Guarding the Intellect

Anger . . . does not represent a state of health in accordance with nature, but an enfeebled condition arising from guilt.
– St. Augustine, City of God

Gluttony is unnatural

The theologians of the early Church also believed gluttony was unnatural (cf. Proverbs 23:2 & 20; Ezekiel 16:49; Philippians 3:19):

Food was created for nourishment and healing. Those who eat food for purposes other than these two are therefore to be condemned as self-indulgent, because they misuse the gifts God has given us for our use. In all things misuse is a sin.
– Maximos the Confessor, Four Hundred Texts on Love, Third Century

All this is contrary to nature, for the Creator has ordained the same natural way of life for both us and the animals.  . . . The animals remain within the boundaries of nature, not altering in any way what God has ordained; but we, who have been honored with the power of intelligence, have completely abandoned His original ordinance. Do animals demand a luxury diet?
– St Neilos, Ascetic Discourse

These passions are unnatural for several reasons. The agitation of body and spirit they represent are a deviation from the peace for which we are created. They reflect a lack of faith and trust in God’s provision and an ingratitude for what has been provided. They create a sort of spiritual static that interferes with our communion with God and one another.

And they are each a surrendering to self-indulgence and a lack of self-control. Indulging in excess beyond what is necessary is unnatural and appears to be a fundamental obstacle to holiness. Thus both the New Testament and the early Church insist that self-control is the foundation of holy living, i.e., communion with God and neighbor.

So, when we think of what is natural and unnatural passion, it is important to understand that we are not only talking about sex. And in the larger context neither is Paul. Still, as noted above, in Romans 1:26-27, he specifically refers to natural and unnatural sexual intercourse. But even there, it is instructive to know what the ancients, inside and outside the Church, thought was natural and unnatural when it comes to sex. We will look at that next.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

How I Came to Change My Mind on SSU: Part 10. Romans 1 (i) Context

For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.(Romans 1:26-27)

Romans 1:26-27 is perhaps the most challenging biblical text for Christians who seek to argue for a more affirming understanding of same-sex sexual relationships. In the next few posts I will address this text.

First, a reminder: Every reader of scripture reads with a perspective that includes rules, conscious or unconscious, which determine how they interpret what they read. I want to remind readers of my basic approach to interpreting scripture found here: Some Thoughts on Interpreting Scripture, here: Back to the Bible, and here: The King or a Fox: Configuring the Mosaic of Scripture. It is also instructive to see how Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther, approached the Bible (here, here, and here). 

Second, before looking at the specific verses that mention the phenomena of same-sex sexual behavior, it is important to look at the larger context. Most scholars agree that Paul’s purpose in Romans 1-3 is to argue that the need of the salvation offered by God through Jesus Christ is radical and universal (actually, he plays this argument out all the way through chapter 7).

In the first 17 verses of Romans 1, the Apostle celebrates the gospel which is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (vs.16). This is important because the church in Rome was made up of both Jews and Gentiles (Greeks). It appears there was some rivalry and suspicion between these two groups. Perhaps Jewish believers claimed superiority because they were of the chosen people who had anticipated the coming of the Messiah. Gentile believers could claim superiority based on what Jews themselves accepted as a mixed history of reception and rejection of the prophets – “We members of the New Covenant are a fresh start and won’t be like them.” Paul intends to undercut any notions of superiority on the part of either group.

As part of that argument, Paul sets up a rhetorical trap which he springs in 2:1. In vss. 18-32, he uses standard Jewish critique of Gentile idolatry.

The common Jewish understanding was that once people – Gentiles – exchanged the worship of God for the things God created, they lost the ability to see things clearly and lost all control morally (see Wisdom 12:23-13:10 and 14:9-31). The sexual licentiousness Jews attributed to Gentiles was one part of this and Paul points to same-sex sexual encounters as he understood them as a particularly egregious example. But, Paul understands “every kind of wickedness” to result from Gentile idolatry.

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.
(Romans 1:28-31)

Thus, Gentiles have no cause to boast.

You can imagine the Roman Jewish Christians giving a hearty “Amen” to this description of Gentile foolishness and immorality. But then Paul springs his trap in Romans 2:1-3

Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You [Jewish Christians] say, ‘We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.’ Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God?

Jewish Christians who were smugly judging their Gentile Christian brothers and sisters are brought up short. They would recognize some of their own behavior in the culminating list of kinds of wickedness. From there, Paul lays out the argument that Jews are as much in need of the salvation Jesus brings as are Gentiles. None can boast. None can judge.

This is an important warning for all of us to take to heart in general. But, it is no less true when it comes to debates regarding homosexuality in particular. As New Testament scholar, Richard B. Hayes has written (in arguing for a more traditional understanding of homosexuality),

Paul’s warning should transform the terms of our contemporary debate about homosexuality: no one has a secure platform to stand upon to pronounce condemnation upon others. Anyone who presumes to have such a vantage point is living in a dangerous fantasy, oblivious to the gospel that levels us all.

Still that does not absolve us from trying to make faithful sense of what Paul is up to in Romans 1:26-27. We’ll look at that more closely in the next post. Much depends on what Paul (and his contemporaries) understood to be natural and unnatural.

Looking at Romans 1: