Friday, October 29, 2010

On Healing Prayer

I had a conversation recently with someone concerning the effectiveness of prayers for healing. That conversation prompts me to post this piece that I wrote a while back:

We pray regularly to 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, BCP 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. What do we expect when we pray for God to heal someone?

When thinking of healing prayer, 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.

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.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Zacchaeus and The Pilgrim

A sermon on Luke 19:1-10

In the summer of 1987, I taught English for five weeks in China. While there, I had the chance to visit Mount Tai which, according to tradition, is the holiest mountain in China. It is a remarkable place. There is a wide staircase carved into the rock from the base of the mountain all the way to its peak. For centuries, millennia even, pilgrims have been coming from all over China to climb those steps.

As you climb the steps, there is a growing sense of age and history. Along the way, there are places where poetry and quotations of Chinese classics have been carved into the faces of cliffs and even behind waterfalls. There is a plaque commemorating the visit of an emperor that dates back two thousand years. At the top of the mountain, there is a Buddhist monastery and shrines dedicated to various Taoist deities. It was the first time I had ever been to anything like an official pilgrimage site.

Walking up the stairs of Mount Tai, one sees trees with rocks wedged into the branches. Each rock represents a prayer brought to the mountain. Sometimes there are two, three, or four rocks of different sizes lined up like sparrows on a branch. Pilgrims wedge their prayer rocks into the branches of the trees of Mount Tai hoping that maybe here their prayers will be heard and change will happen. They are poignant reminders of human need and the universal desire for heavenly help.

Zacchaeus went on a sort of pilgrimage. He didn't travel far. He didn't climb a mountain. But he did climb a tree. He was an unlikely pilgrim. A tax collector, he was willing to sell out his own people to make a buck. He sided with the forces of occupation and oppression. Hardened and cynical, he knew the way things work. Words like goodness, love, and justice were only words. They had no currency in his line of work. You have to look out for number one. That's what Zacchaeus had done. And he had done it well, thank you very much. He was no petty tax collector. He had been employee of the month so often he was given his own franchise. If you could say "Bah! Humbug!" in Aramaic, it might have been his motto. No, Zacchaeus was not a likely pilgrim - or a likely candidate for change. Certainly, his neighbors had written him off.

Yet, somewhere in the back of his mind, or the bottom of his heart, there is a nagging, a sense that all is not right. There is brokenness and guilt behind the cynical mask. Somewhere he has lost his way - if he ever had a way that was not already lost. He has grown weary of his life, but sees no way out. He is alone. He is lost.

Then, along comes this man, Jesus, a man with a reputation for changing lives, for healing, and for restoration. Can change happen here? Can this man do it? Zacchaeus is still unsure. It is as much a surprise to himself as to anyone that he finds himself perched in a sycamore tree, wedged in its branches like a prayer.  Zacchaeus has come seeking Jesus. He is on a pilgrimage.

But, Zacchaeus is not the only pilgrim in the story. He is not even the primary one. Jesus is also on a pilgrimage. "The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost." Jesus, the Word made flesh, came into this world on a pilgrimage. Like all pilgrims, Jesus came seeking something important. But, unlike other pilgrims, he came not to seek the holy out of personal sense of need, but to bring his holiness and wholeness where it was needed. Like a pilgrim visiting a series of shrines Jesus came to the sisters Mary and Martha. He came to a bent and broken old woman. He came to the blind man and the leper. He came to the Samaritan woman. He came to the children. He came to a man whose wealth and comfort made him numb to the needs of the poor. Jesus was on a pilgrimage. The destination of that pilgrimage was the broken and the lost, the possessed and the dispossessed, the outcast and the one who casts out, the oppressed and the collaborator. The son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost. Zacchaeus has come seeking Jesus. But before Zacchaeus was seeking Jesus, Jesus was seeking Zacchaeus. And now, Zacchaeus is tree'd.

To his surprise (and everyone else's dismay) he hears Jesus say, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down. For I must stay at your house today." There was something in that voice, something in the eyes that made the invitation impossible to refuse. Maybe it was the shock of being loved when he had become so unlovable. Maybe it was a sense of judgement in the presence of one so good. Maybe it was the realization that they are two sides of the same coin.

Whatever it was it caused the beginning of a change. Zacchaeus was reconnected with his neighbors. He was reconnected with God. And the combination of those two connections disconnected him from his attachment to his wealth. He paid back those he had cheated at 400% interest. He gave half of the rest to the poor. Zacchaeus had been lost, but now he was found. He had been lost, but now he was saved.

Each of us has also come on a sort of pilgrimage this morning. Like Zacchaeus, we haven't come far. Like Zacchaeus, we have come to see Jesus. It is into his cross-shaped tree that we wedge our prayers. We bring our brokenness, our lost dreams, our lost innocence, our need. We bring our hopes for change, for connection, for forgiveness, for healing. Perhaps here change can happen.

But here also, the real pilgrim is still Jesus. The destination of his pilgrimage is each of us. Before we thought to seek him, he has come seeking us. He looks to each of us and says, "Hurry and come down, for I must stay with you today." The risen Lord still comes to seek out and to save the lost. To seek out and to save you and me.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Against Bullying

I arrived in 7th grade a short and scrawny farm kid. I was the object of some bullying. One day in gym class another kid, O., grabbed me and dropped me to the floor. O. was one of those guys who was two or three years ahead of the rest of us in physical development. He dropped me to the floor and wrapped me up in a headlock. Into my ear, he said, "I could break your neck." Unable to move or resist, the only defiant thing I could think to do was reply with a dare, "Then do it." He eventually let go.

Besides being a scrawny, I suppose I was odd in other ways. A bit of a geek, I read books about history - things like ancient Rome and the career of Napoleon Bonaparte (a little guy who did big things). In 8th grade, another bigger guy, A., picked me out for verbal abuse in English class. One day, he walked by my desk, looked at me with disdain and said, "Where'd you get that sissy shirt, Gunter?" Actually, he used a word rather less delicate than "sissy". It doesn't sound like much, but it hurt enough to make an impression. I don't remember many things from 8th grade. But I remember that.

In 9th grade, I checked out a book on tennis from the school library. While I was walking through the hall with the book in hand, a guy who had picked on me before came up from behind. Observing the book, he snidely offered, "You'll never play tennis, Gunter." "Why", I wondered, "does someone who hardly even knows me want to say such a thing?"

None of this was all that bad compared to the bullying others have experienced. But, coupled with a less than affirming relationship with my father, it was bad enough. It got better. I began to catch up physically. I ran track and played football. I gradually became more sure of myself (very gradually it seemed at the time). And, most significantly, I became more deeply aware of God's love revealed in Jesus Christ which put whatever others thought or did in a different light.

Those experiences have given me deep empathy for others who are victims of bullying and abuse whether verbal or physical. There are lots of reasons people are bullied: physique, weight, gender, race/ethnicity, perceived personality quirks, etc. Over the last few weeks we have been reminded that gays and lesbians (and those assumed to be so) are often targets of particularly nasty bullying. That needs to be addressed. And it needs to stop.

I continue to have good deal of ambivalence, not to mention confusion, about how Christians should make sense of gay and lesbian sex. I am frustrated by the way it has been handled in the Episcopal Church. But, of this I am sure: Christians must speak out against bullying whoever the target is. And, given the heat generated by debates over homosexuality in the church and beyond, we have a particular obligation to be clear that bullying of gays and lesbians is unacceptable. That means some Christians need to temper their rhetoric and take into account the flesh and blood reality of the lives of those about whom they are talking.

In the end, bullying - whoever the target and whatever the reason - is not just about how kids are treated in school. And it is not a problem for the schools to solve. The problem is with the coarseness of the general discourse in the adult world. When our political, ecclesial, and other public discourse is full of disdain, disrespect, ad hominem attacks, exaggeration, and distortion; we are contributing to a culture in which bullying is acceptable. And that is a culture of death. Sometimes literally. We can do better. Those who accept Jesus as Lord are commanded to do better.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Of Mercy and Banana Peels

A Sermon on Luke 18:9-14

I suspect that Jesus would have liked slapstick comedy. You know, the Laurel and Hardy sort of humor. You remember. Laurel will be eating a banana and throw the peel on the ground. And you know, as soon as you see Hardy walking up the road what’s going to happen. It’s the pratfall, the trip, the rug pulled out from under your feet, the banana peel in the way. Jesus seems to have a predilection for that sort of thing, continually pulling the rug out from under our feet or tossing banana peels in our path.

His parables are often like banana peels tossed on the pathway to moral self-satisfaction. This morning’s parable, in particular, is such a banana peel. It’s a familiar story – the Pharisee and the Tax Collector praying at the temple. In fact, it’s so familiar it has lost some of its edge for us. We already know who is the good guy and who the bad guy. Jesus’ original hearers would not have been so sure.

The Pharisees were not known as necessarily self-righteous or righteous in any way other than the way we all hope to be righteous. The Pharisees were lay people who had a passion for seeking after God’s heart, for living according to the Torah – for living faithfully so that all Israel might be redeemed. Tax Collectors, on the other hand, everyone knew and no one liked. Even under the best of circumstances few people are excited when they see a tax collector coming. But in a time when you are occupied and oppressed by a foreign nation, tax collectors are even worse. Not only are they taking some of your money away to run the government, but the government they are taking money to run is a foreign occupier. Tax collectors would have been seen as the collaborators. The last thing you would want your son to grow up to be would be a tax collector.

And so in the parable we have the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The Pharisee prays to God, recounting all the good things that he has done – good things that everybody would have recognized as good things. He fasts. He tithes. He is a regular worshipper. All the things that we hope to be ourselves. Of course, as he is praying and recounting all the good things, he has one eye open to those around him. The Pharisee prays with peripheral vision, looking to either side at those who might not quite measure up to his standards: all the rogues, the prostitutes, thieves, adulterers, and, maybe even especially, this tax collector (we all know what sorts of people they are). The Pharisee is confident that he is on the right track, that he is dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s.

The Tax Collector, on the other hand, as everyone would have known, is all undotted i's and uncrossed t's. And he knows it. He prays the only honest prayer he can pray, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The Pharisee is a moral, upright person. He is on the straight and narrow. But it is on that straight and narrow that Jesus tosses his banana peel, and the Pharisee who has every reason to think that he is right with God slips on the peel and falls. Meanwhile, the Tax Collector who has every reason to think that he is out of sorts with God goes home justified.

And I suspect those who heard Jesus tell this parable slipped on the banana peel as well. What kind of a morally uplifting story is that? Not the kind of story you want to tell your children. They might take it seriously. The just person is condemned and the contemptible person is justified? Jesus doesn’t even suggest that the Tax Collector went home to live differently. He only throws himself on God’s mercy.

The point is not that being a tax collecting collaborator is a matter of indifference to Jesus. The point is that the Pharisee is in as much need of God’s mercy as is the Tax Collector. As are we all. And, of course, we all get that now. Don’t we?

There is a third person implied in this parable. This person is praying as well, and watching both the Pharisee and the tax collector. We are the third person. If we’re not careful, there is a banana peel in our path as well. How often do we observe the Pharisee and say, “Thank you God that I am not self righteous, like that Pharisee"? We all slip on the banana peel sooner or later. We measure ourselves against others. Whether it is the righteous and the unrighteous, the holy or the unholy, the mature or the immature, the sophisticated or the unsophisticated, the just and the unjust, we all fall into the trap of keeping score. Thank God I am not like that liberal. Thank God I am not like that conservative. Thank God I am not like that fundamentalist. One way or another, we are usually pretty sure that we are the ones who get it. We are the ones who are superior. We are the ones who are on the side of the angels.

Again and again Jesus tosses a banana peel on our path to moral superiority, our own exalted opinion of ourselves. We are reminded that we don’t know as much as we think we do. We are reminded that we are not as good as we like to think we are. We are reminded that our perspective is not God’s. We are reminded that we often slip into our own version of Phariseism. We slip and land on our backsides. By God's grace we are humbled and reminded, yet again, that our only honest prayer is, “God, have mercy on me a sinner.” In fact the only prayer that is anything other than stammering, and the only deed that is anything other than stumbling, is the one that begins and ends with, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.”

You may have heard the story of the man who dies and goes to the pearly gates where he is met by St. Peter.

Peter says, “Before you get in, you have to pass this little test. You have to make sure you have scored enough points to get in. You have to get one hundred points.”

The man thinks that should not be too hard because he has, after all, led a very good life. So he says to St. Peter, “Well, first of all, I was married for 57 years to one woman and was faithful from the very beginning until the very end.

Peter says, “That’s impressive. That’s one point.”

Then the man says, “Well, I also was a regular at church, Sunday in and Sunday out."

Peter gives him another point.

The man tries again, “I tithed.”

Peter says, “Well, that’s pretty good, too. That’s another three points.”

“Did I tell you that I also volunteered for the youth group for five years? Do you know how many lock-ins that is?”

“Four points.”

The points are not adding up very fast.

The man begins to despair. He says, “Well, how about this? How about this? I prayed regularly, and in lots of different ways. I did centering prayer. I did lectio divina. I even prayed in tongues! I led prayer workshops!”

St. Peter says, “Impressive. Another two points.”

Finally, the man beats his breast in despair and cries out, “At this rate the only way that I’ll get into Heaven is by the mercy of God!”

Peter smiles and says “One hundred points!”

The first word for Christians is grace and the last word for Christians is grace; and every day, along the way, is grace, grace, grace. That’s not good news for the Pharisee in us who wants to keep score. It is very good news for the Tax Collector in us who can only pray, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Watch out for those banana peels.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Is a Covenant UnAnglican?

It is often asserted that Anglicanism is not confessional in the same sense as are other churches of the Reformation. By extension, it is argued anything like a covenant would be foreign to the Anglican spirit. While it is arguable whether the Articles of Religion are more or less like a confession, the more interesting question is why they never had the same significance for the Church of England as confessions like the Augsburg (Lutheran) and Westminster (Presbyterian) have had for other traditions. I submit that this was because one of the main rationale for confessions was provided elsewhere.

Confessions serve as symbols of belonging which give particular communities a shared identity. As such, they are sources of cohesion and delineate communal boundaries. Every community has such symbols of cohesion and boundary. The Church of England did not need a “robust’ confession because it had another source of identity and loyalty – the crown (or more broadly, the insipient nation-state that was England). It is not so much that the C of E chose not to go the confessional/covenantal route as it is that it chose a different route – covenanting with the state. This Erastianism – the doctrine that the state is supreme over the church – is our tradition’s original and besetting sin.

The Church of England was unique among Reformation Churches in being formed primarily as a national church. The primary motivational belief was the belief in national sovereignty and national sovereignty over the church. When Elizabeth I made her famous statement about not making windows into men’s souls, she was simply declaring the crown’s part in this covenant. The state would not concern itself with what you believed in your heart of hearts as long as you were willing to participate in the common worship of the state church, thus declaring your ultimate loyalty to the state and fulfilling your part of the covenant. Even when it was required, subscription to the Articles might have had more to do with this sign of loyalty to the crown/state than to the particulars contained therein. The C of E “tolerated” more religious eccentricity than some churches whose covenants were more confessional, but that diversity never included disloyalty to the crown. That would be breaking the covenant and thus a sort of heresy.

This covenant with the state and its Established Church has been the gravitational center around which the parties within the Church of England moved together. Establishment still makes the classic balance more or less possible in England, but it is losing its gravitational force as England becomes more and more secular and pluralistic.

Of course, after the American Revolution, the Episcopal Church was not an officially established church. But, it was a key player in the unofficial, but de facto, Protestant establishment that was dominant in the United States up until the middle of the 20th century. That, along, perhaps, with a certain class affinity provided common ground enough to hold its various sub-groups together more or less. But, both class affinity and de facto establishment have come undone in the wake of a more pluralistic, increasingly post-Christian, and socially fractured context. In such a situation, what is the center that holds the sub-traditions (Evangelical, High Church/Catholic, Broad Church/Liberal, etc.) of classic Anglican comprehensiveness in anything like balance? What exists to deliver us from our own version of Erastianism in which we are fundamentally an American church (albeit, increasingly - and even more parochially - a liberal/progressive American church)?

A formal covenant might not be the only way to provide cohesion to a body as large and varied as is the Anglican Communion. But, in a post-established, post-colonial, post-Christendom, post-modern era; if we are to have a Communion instead of a loose collection of national or culture-specific churches, we need to pay careful attention to how we insure that we are able to recognize each other as speaking the same language – albeit with different accents.

I support the idea of an Anglican Communion Covenant, but not because I want to assure some sort of conservative ideal of a halcyon past. Rather, I think it is a plausible and faithful next move of the trajectory we have been on for the last 50 years as the Anglican Communion has become more aware of itself. A transnational/transcultural Communion helps us bear witness to the kingdom of God in which nation, race and culture are no longer definitive. It helps guard us against the idolatry of nation or culture or ideology. Such a witness will be harder, if not almost impossible, to offer or receive if we cease to belong to each other and dissolve into several “coalitions of the willing”.

The evolution of the Anglican Communion has provided a context for rethinking our Erastian heritage and what it means to be the Church. One way or another, in a post-Christendom, post-colonial context our Anglican heritage will be reworked. A trans-national communion of mutual respect, accountability, and responsibility to one another across the boundaries of nation and culture is the trajectory of our evolution. It is a faithful trajectory for a church that confesses to believe the Church to be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. I do not think that trajectory takes us toward a Roman Catholic model. It does challenge modern notions of nationalism and individualism.

The question, ultimately, is not whether or not we will have a covenant of some sort. The question is whether or not that covenant will be explicit or implicit and whether it will be global or more “provincial”. And will it be able to offer a challenge to our more parochial loyalties to nation, culture, and class.