Monday, December 31, 2012

Hope, Joy, & Dignity Rooted in Christmas

On the seventh day of Christmas, something from another great theologian/Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey (1904-1988):

It is because we believe God has an answer to man’s predicament, the answer of the Word-Made-Flesh at Bethlehem, that we have hope, and, having hope, are rejoicing once again at Christmas.

Christians for whom this hope is a reality have been able to rejoice even when they have been in the word’s darkest places. It is It was in prison in Rome with the prospect of death awaiting him that St. Paul wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say, rejoice . . . In nothing be anxious, the Lord is at hand.”

The proof of our Christian hope is the existence of men and women who have lived by it, and have radiated its joy even in dark and heartbreaking circumstances.

Our rejoicing at Christmas is not an escape from life’s grim realities into a fancy realm of religion and festivity. Rather it is a joy that, as we face and feel the world’s tragedy, we know that God has an answer, an answer for mankind to receive. In a word, this is a time of hope. 

Christmas says: Christ has taken humanity to himself, and so every man and woman and child in the world is loveable and infinitely precious. And, in response, men and women can treat each other–whatever their race or color–in the light of Bethlehem; or they can, in rejecting the human dignity of their fellows, reject their own dignity too.
(from Through the Year with Michael Ramsey, Margaret Duggan, ed.)

Eighth Day of Christmas: As Rain Falls on the Earth

First Day of Christmas: How God Brings His Love to Bear

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Jesus = Something that's Going on Eternally

This year, the sixth day of Christmas falls on the first Sunday of Christmas. The lessons of the lectionary appointed for Episcopalian churches this Sunday include John1:1-18. Here is a video reflection on that pasage by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury (the text is below as well):

It's a slightly strange way to start a Gospel you might think. We expect something a bit more like the beginning of the other Gospels: the story of Jesus's birth perhaps or his ancestry, or the story of Jesus's arrival on the public scene.
But at the beginning of St John's Gospel what St John does is to frame his whole story against an eternal background. And what he's saying there is this: as you read this Gospel, as you read the stories about what Jesus does, be aware that whatever he does in the stories you're about to read is something that's going on eternally, not just something that happens to be going on in Palestine at a particular date.
So when Jesus brings an overflow of joy at a wedding, when Jesus reaches out to a foreign woman to speak words of forgiveness and reconciliation to her, when Jesus opens the eyes of a blind man or raises the dead, all of this is part of something that is going on forever. The welcome of God, the joy of God, the light of God, the life of God - all of this is eternal. What Jesus is showing on Earth is somehow mysteriously part of what is always true about God. 

And that's why it's central to this beginning of John's Gospel - that he says the light shines in the darkness and the darkness doesn't swallow it up. How could the darkness swallow it up? If these works of welcome and forgiveness, of light and life and joy, are always going on, then actually nothing can ever make a difference to them.
And that's why at the climax of this wonderful passage, St John says, the Word of God, the outpouring of God's life, actually became flesh and blood. And we saw it - we saw in this human life the eternal truth about God. We saw an eternal love, an eternal relationship; we saw an eternal joy and a light and a life.

So as we read these stories we know that nothing at all can make a difference to the truth, the reality, they bring into the world. This is indeed the truth; this is where life is to be found. And this explains why at the end of St John's Gospel, he famously says that if we tried to spell out all that this means, there would be no end of the books that could be written.

So in the light of that overflowing joy and everlasting truth, I wish you every blessing and happiness for this Christmas and the year ahead.

Seventh Day of Christmas: Hope, Joy, and Dignity Rooted in Christmas
First Day of Christmas: How God Brings His Love to Bear

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Ultimate Truth About God

For the fifth day of Christmas, I have another quote from William Temple who I quoted on the third day of Christmas. There he said that Jesus, as the incarnation of the eternal Word, is the self-utterance of God. Here he offers more of what that means:

The life of Christ is a momentary manifestation of eternal truth; and it is God for us as a devotional exercise to sometimes to read the Gospels, turning all the past tenses into the present, and to remember that what we read there is an expression, quite strictly, under all conditions of the time and place in which the expression took place, of what is always true. And the culmination of this utterance is the Passion. The ultimate truth about God and His relation to the finite spirits is this, that ‘when He is reviled He reviles not again, and when He suffers, He threatens not’.
(About Christ, SCM Press LTD, London, 1962, p. 63)

First Day of Christmas: How God Brings His Love to Bear

Friday, December 28, 2012

On Rachel's Lament and Not Looking Away

The fourth day of Christmas is the Feast of Holy Innocents rooted in the story of Herod’s slaughter of baby boys of Bethlehem in an attempt to annihilate the infant Jesus as recounted in the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. It is also a reminder that many little ones continue to suffer and die due to hunger, disease, neglect, abuse, and violence.

Fleming Rutledge is an Episcopalian priest and renowned preacher and author. Her blog, GenerousOrthodoxy, is a fine resource. The following is taken from one of her sermons, Monsters at the Manger. In the sermon she refers to a sermon preached by a Roman Catholic priest, Father Lucic, at a church in Sarajevo during the siege and bombardment there in the 1990’s:

The priest’s final words were, “Jesus teaches us that human judgments are not the last judgments, that human justice is not the last justice, and that power that humans exercise over one another is not the final power”

How can we believe this? How can we go on singing “Joy to the world, the Savior reigns,” in view of the fact that the monsters continue to devour our children with undiminished ferocity?

The Christmas story is anchored to our lives and to the wickedness of this world by the grief of Rachel, “weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” The authors of Scripture did not turn away from the unimaginable suffering of children. God the Father did not turn away. Jesus did not turn away. We see in his death on the Cross and Resurrection from the dead the source of our conviction that “human judgments are not the final judgments, that human justice is not the final justice, and the power that humans exercise over one another is not the final power.” But we must keep Ivan Karamazov’s protest in our minds every day. The nativity story might as well be about reindeer and snowmen for sure, if it has nothing to say about the small victims. I believe that by putting Rachel’s lament at the heart of the Christmas story, Matthew has shown us how to hold onto faith and hope until the Second Coming. Only as we share in the prayers and the laments of bereaved families, not looking away, can we continue to believe that the savior reigns even now in the faith and tenacity of Father Lucic and all those who continue to stand for humanity in the face of barbarity. Only by attending to the horrors of this world can we continue tossing the words of that great eighteenth-century hymn-writer Isaac Watts;

He comes to make his blessings known
Far as the curse is found
(Hymn, “Joy to theWorld”)

For only a faith forged out of suffering can say with conviction that the angels and monsters will not coexist forever, that Muslims and agnostics and Christians and Jews will be drawn together in ways we cannot yet imagine, that the agonies of victims will some day be rectified, and that the unconditional love of God in Jesus Christ will be the Last Word.

Here is a performance of a boys' choir illustrating the tragic reality that a child dies every three seconds around the world:

Fifth Day of Christmas: The Ultimate Truth About God

First Day of Christmas: How God Brings His Love to Bear

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Jesus = the Self-utterance of God

The third day of Christmas is the Feast of Saint John the Evangelist. In the magisterial prologue to the Gospel of John, we are given a cosmic background to the Christmas story:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light. The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. 1He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. John bore witness to him, and cried, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me ranks before me, for he was before me.'") And from his fulness have we all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.

Here is a brief reflection from Archbishop William Temple (1881-1944):

The Word became flesh. The Word did not merely indwell a human being. Absolute identity is asserted. The Word is Jesus; Jesus is the Word. And it is said that the Word became flesh because “flesh is that part of human nature commonly associated with frailty and evil; commonly, but not necessarily. In Jesus the flesh is the completely responsive vehicle of the spirit. The whole of Him, flesh included, is the Word, the self-utterance of God.

Fourth Day of Christmas: On Rachel's Lament and Not Looking Away

First Day of Christmas: How God Brings His Love to Bear

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Jesus = Peace

The second day of Christmas is the Feast of Saint Stephen, deacon and first martyr of the Church. Stephen's last words before he died were a prayer for those who were stoning him, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Thus, he proved himself worthy to bear the name of Christ who commanded, "But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you" (Luke 6:27-28) and who himself prayed from the cross,  "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).

As we celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace and sing of peace on earth, good will to all, we would do well to embrace the daily witness/martyrdom of peaceableness. Here is something along those lines from Gregory of Nyssa ( c.335-386):

He is our peace, who has made both one. Since Christ is our peace, we shall be living up to the name of Christian if we let Christ be seen in our lives by letting peace reign in our hearts. He has brought hostility to an end, as the apostle said. Therefore, we must not allow it to come back to life in us in any way at all but must proclaim clearly that it is dead indeed. God has destroyed it in a wonderful way for our salvation. We must not, then, allow ourselves to give way to anger or bear grudges, for this would endanger our souls. We must not stir up the very thing that is well and truly dead, calling it back to life by our wickedness.
But as we bear the name of Christ, who is peace, we too must put an end to all hostility, so that we may profess in our lives what we believe to be true of him. He broke down the dividing wall and brought the two sides together in himself, thus making peace. We too, then, should not only be reconciled with those who attack us from without, we should also bring together the warring factions within us, so that the flesh may no longer be opposed to the spirit and the spirit to the flesh. Then when the mind that is set on the flesh is subject to the divine law, we may be refashioned into one new creature, into a man of peace. When the two have been made one we shall then have peace within ourselves.
The definition of peace is that there should be harmony between two opposed factions. And so, when the civil war in our nature has been brought to an end and we are at peace within ourselves, we may become peace. Then we shall really be true to the name of Christ that we bear.

When we consider that Christ is the true light far removed from all falsehood, we realize that our lives too should be lit by the rays of the sun of justice, which shine for our enlightenment. These rays are the virtues by which we cast off the works of darkness and conduct ourselves becomingly as in the light of day. Then, when we refuse to have anything to do with the darkness of wickedness and do everything in the light, we ourselves shall also become light and our works will give light to others, for it is in the nature of light to shine out.
But if we look upon Christ as our sanctification, then we should keep ourselves free from all that is wicked and impure both in thought and in deed and so prove ourselves worthy to bear his name, for we shall be demonstrating the effect of sanctification not in words but in our actions and in our lives. 

As  a bonus for thr Feast of Saint Stephen, here is one of my favorite songs of the season:

Third Day of Christmas: Jesus = the Self-utterance of God

First Day of Christmas: How God Brings His Love to Bear

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

How God Brings His Love to Bear

To kick of the twelve days of Christmas, here is something from Austin Farrer (1904-1968), one of the great Anglican theologians of the 20th century and a friend of C. S. Lewis who preached at Lewis' funeral:

How can I matter to him? we say. It makes no sense; he has the world, and even that he does not need. It is folly even to imagine him like myself, to credit him with eyes into which I could ever look, a heart that could ever beat for my sorrows or joys, and a hand he could hold out to me. For even if the childish picture be allowed, that hand must be cupped to hold the universe, and I am a speck of dust on the star-dust of the world.
Yet Mary holds her finger out, and a divine hand closes on it. The maker of the world is born a begging child; he begs for milk, and does not know that it is milk for which he begs. We will not lift our hands to pull the love of God down to us, but he lifts his hands to pull human compassion down upon his cradle. So the weakness of God proves stronger than men, and the folly of God proves wiser than men. Love is the strongest instrument of omnipotence, for accomplishing those tasks he cares most dearly to perform; and this is how he brings his love to bear on human pride; by weakness not by strength, by need and not by bounty.

The Second Day of Christmas: Jesus = Peace

Monday, December 17, 2012

Gollum's Choice or, What is Your Precious?

"A life is either all spiritual or not spiritual at all. No man can serve two masters. Your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire."  
– Thomas. Merton

I saw the Hobbit movie yesterday. Though it has its shortcomings (and longcomings, given its length), I enjoyed it. But then, as a Tolkien and Peter Jackson fan, I wanted to enjoy it.

I'm reposting an old sermon that explores questions of heaven and hell playing off of one of the characters in the movie:

Smeagol was once a hobbit-like creature. A hobbit is an imaginary creature invented by J. R. R. Tolkien who wrote the The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Short creatures with hairy feet, hobbits have been described as a cross between a rabbit and an English country gentleman. One day, Smeagol and a friend were fishing in a river. His friend fell into the water and swam or sank to the bottom of the river where he saw a bright and shiny ring. He returned to the surface and showed the ring to Smeagol. It happened to be Smeagol’s birthday and he asked his friend, or rather demanded of his friend, the ring as a birthday present. The friend refused for he had already given Smeagol his birthday present. Smeagol strangled his friend, took the ring and put it on his finger.

It was a magical ring. When he put it on he was invisible. But it was also a cursed ring and it began to warp Smeagol. It warped him such that he began to find the sun too hot and too bright. He took shelter in the caverns of a mountain. When we first meet him in the story he is no longer known as Smeagol, but has been warped into a strange creature called Gollum because of the odd gulping noise he makes. When we first meet Gollum, formerly Smeagol, in the story, he lives on a small island in the middle of a lake at the dark heart of a mountain. There, he eats raw fish and speaks to his ring, which he calls, “My Precious”. Isolated from all other creatures, Gollum is alone. He is alone, that is, except for the ring – his "Precious".

I have wondered if maybe hell is like what happened to Smeagol. God, in His fierce mercy, gives us freedom – freedom to choose our “Precious”. And we can possess whatever we choose to be our Precious – money, possessions, power, prestige, pleasure, etc. – to the bitter end. And beyond. What we choose for our Precious will either mold and shape us into something more beautiful and more human or it will warp us into something much less, like Gollum. That molding or warping continues beyond this life and God will allow us to continue to fall in on ourselves and our precious forever if we choose.

Scripture warns us that our choices have consequences and there will be judgment. In Hebrews 12:25 there is this stark warning. “How much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns us from heaven?” And, lest we think it’s just some peculiarity of the exhortation to the Hebrews, in the gospels, Jesus warns as well. In Luke 13, Jesus warns, “Strive to enter through the narrow door.” “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The warning of judgment, whether we like it or not, (and I don’t particularly like it) is a part of Jesus’ message. And it shows up repeatedly and in each gospel. It is a mistake to try to make Jesus less offensive by denying that judgment is part of his message. The Jesus of the gospels warns of judgment. We ought not to ignore it or wish it away.

It is also a mistake, however, to take the images of hell too literally. Christians throughout history have managed to understand that the images of heaven in the Bible are metaphorical. Very few Christians die believing that when they awake they will pass through literal pearly gates and walk literal streets of gold and live in literal mansions with a cubicle for each of us. We understand that those images are metaphors pointing to something greater than we can imagine. But somehow Christians have not been able, usually, to see same metaphorical interpretation of hell. We always seem to take the pictures of hell quite literally – a literal lake of fire in which people burn in agony forever and ever if they choose wrongly. We are familiar with those images. Paintings and graphic descriptions have impressed them on our imaginations. The warning is to be taken seriously, but let’s not mistake metaphorical imagery for literal description. If the images of heaven are metaphorical, then so are the images of hell.

A bit of an aside: Such images of hell are not unique to Christianity. Those who say that we should ignore the differences between religions and just get down to that which they all have in common always intrigue me. They ignore the problem that one thing nearly every religion has in common is hell. There are Buddhist paintings of hell that are every bit as graphic and discomforting as anything described by Dante or depicted by Hieronymus Bosch. Such images of hell make God out to be a cosmic torturer.

It is also a mistake to morbidly dwell on hell. In spite of the impression some have given, hell is not the main point of Christianity. Too often the threat of hell has been used to scare people in order to control them. The primary reason for Jesus’ coming was not to scare the hell out of us. The primary reason for Jesus’ coming was to prepare a way or us and to point us towards the kingdom of God. As Charles Williams wrote,

"The order of purging is according to the seven deadly sins of the formal tradition of the Church. The Church is not a way for the soul to escape hell but to become heaven; it is virtues rather than sins which we must remember." (The Figure of Beatrice, p. 157)

Still, we should not be complacent about the warning of judgment that we have in scripture. It is a warning that comes from Jesus. It would be a mistake to assume that God is just such a nice guy that he could never really judge us severely. Or that he merely says, “All-y, all-y, in come free!” While it is possible to make too much of hell, it is also possible to make too little. The judgment is real. There is no room for complacency.

Jesus is instructive. Asked a theoretical question in Luke 13 about how many will be saved, Jesus, as is his wont, refused to get into the theoretical or speculative. Instead, Jesus’ answer to the question makes it personal. “Don’t worry about how few or how many make it to heaven. If it ends up that only a few get in, that is God’s business. If it turns out that God, in his incredible grace and mercy, makes a way for all to enter, that also is God’s business.” Jesus says, “You strive to enter through the narrow door.” He makes it personal. Don’t worry about the particulars of what it’s like. Don’t worry about who else is in or out. You strive to enter the narrow door. Choose today who is your Precious.

Our choices matter in the short run and in the long run. We can choose wrongly. We can choose that which will warp us. It does matter how we live. It is not a matter of indifference whether we live lives of self-giving love or lives of self-absorption. We can choose our Precious, and in the end God may just allow us to live with whatever has been truly precious to ourselves –  eternally. Our choice of what (or who) is our Precious will ultimately either mold us into something glorious or warp us into something terrible. That molding or warping begins now and continues eternally.
C. S. Lewis says much the same thing in his essay, The Weight of Glory:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you say it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilites, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

The Christian conviction is that Jesus also matters. Jesus did not come to scare the hell out of us; instead he came to show us what is eternally Precious. Indeed, he came to be our Precious. Our problem is, among other things, that we, in our sinfulness and our ignorance, find it difficult to recognize or receive what is truly Precious. There are many things vying to be our Precious. Jesus comes to break into our willfulness and ignorance and say; “I am your Precious. I am the way to all that is precious.”

But more than just showing us what our Precious is, Jesus frees us to pursue it. Our problem is more profound than just ignorance. We are born addicted, like crack babies, to things that are not our true Precious. Jesus Christ, on the cross and in his resurrection, breaks the bondage of that addiction, frees us to choose our true Precious –  to choose him. Jesus is our Precious.

Being a hopeful universalist*, I still hope that (back to the analogy) maybe even Gollum, isolated and alone on the island at the dark and lonely center of the mountain, is not completely abandoned. Perhaps Jesus is still sitting beside him saying, “Smeagol, come back. Repent.” Maybe that’s what it means when we claim Jesus descended into hell. I hope that Dante was wrong when he wrote that over the gates of hell it reads, “Abandon all hope you who enter here.” I wonder if the God we know in Jesus Christ ever completely abandons hope. Is it possible that not even hell is God-forsaken?

The warning is real. The promise is also real. Our hope is real. In Hebrews we read that we have received a kingdom that cannot be shaken and therefore we do not need to be morbidly fearful of hell. We can give thanks. But in reverence and in awe, because we remember that our God is a consuming fire. Our choices matter. Jesus comes to us day by day, comes to us today, and says, “Choose today to enter in through the narrow door. Choose today who is your Precious.”

Friday, December 14, 2012

When the World Will End

Last year, the end of the world was much in the news as Harold Camping predicted May 21 as the day of Doom. He was wrong.

Now there is much talk about the Mayan calendar and the speculation that because it only runs through December 21, 2012, the end is near.

I expect to wake up on December 22, 2012, as I did on May 22, 2011, with the world still going on pretty much as it has.

I am confident about this because I am an Episcopalian. And as an Episcopalian I know when the world is going to end. It is really quite simple and, because I care, I am going to let the world know so everyone can plan ahead.

There is an elaborate set of rules for determining the date of Easter each year. Helpfully, there are Tables for Finding Holy Days in our Book of Common Prayer beginning on page 880. The Prayer Book even saves us the trouble of applying those rules by listing future Easter dates in the following pages.

And here it is . . .

The Book of Common Prayer has dates for Easter through 2089, but no further. Therefore, I predict the end of the world will come on or after April 3, 2089.

Remember, you heard it here first.

Actually, anyone wondering about the end of the world would do well to consider the following:

Jesus said, "But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only." (Matthew 24:36)

And Paul wrote, "For he says, 'At the acceptable time I have listened to you, and helped you on the day of salvation.' Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation." (2 Corinthians 6:2)

See also: C. S. Lewis and the World's Last Night

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

In the meantime, we wait – together

I had the opportunity to hear Elie Wiesel speak a few years ago. He shared this story which seems appropriate for Advent:

Abraham Heschel, the great Jewish rabbi and theologian of the last century, was once invited to speak at an ecumenical gathering of Christians. Rabbi Heschel said, “We Jews await the coming of the Messiah. You Christians believe the Messiah has already come but you await his coming again. In the meantime, we wait – together. When the Messiah comes, someone, no doubt, will ask him, ‘Have you been here before?’” Then Rabbi Heschel added, “I hope to be standing right next to him so I can whisper in his ear, ‘Don’t answer.’”

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Humility and Generosity of Lincoln

I saw the movie Lincoln over the weekend with some of my extended family. It was my second time seeing the film. I think I was moved even more the second time than the first. This movie captures some of why Abraham Lincoln has been an iconic figure in American history. He was truly a great man.
Among other things, the movie reminds us that politics in a democracy has always been a rough and tumble affair. However, much we night bemoan the current state of American politics, there is no such thing as a 'golden age' in which everyone just got along and cooperated toward a shared vision of the common good. And the movie shows Lincoln himself resorting to unsavory tactics to achieve good ends (on this, David Brooks has some fine observations). Things might or might not be much worse now than they were then (though I do wonder about the effects of contemporary media and the influx of unprecedented amounts of money to skew things).
But, one thing has changed, unless Abraham Lincoln was truly a unique historical figure. The movie ends with the closing lines of Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, which is itself one of the great political speeches of American history. The movie inspired me to reread the whole of that address (Second Inaugural Address). I am struck by two virtues Lincoln demonstrates that it would be good to see more commonly in contemporary politics. Those virtues are humility and generosity toward opponents. Here are the last two paragraphs:
Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all.

Note first, that, though Lincoln seems fairly confident he knows what is right, he almost instinctively qualifies his own 'firmness in the right' with the caveat 'as God gives us to see the right'. Recognizing and naming the uncomfortable fact that both his side and the other 'read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other', Lincoln further affirms that 'The Almighty has His own purposes' acknowledging that those purposes might or might not line up with his own.This admission of partial vision is a fundamental aspect of the virtue of humility.

Such epistemological humility allows Lincoln to entertain the possibility that others might be right – even those who 'dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces'.
Whether such humility was common in Lincoln's day, it has become rare in ours. Instead, the rhetoric, both left and right, would suggest that what is right is so clear that all reasonable people will agree. Which means that those who do not agree must be either unreasonable or nefarious. Thus, it is either impossible or unnecessary to engage them with respect.
But, Lincoln did engage those with whom he disagreed with respect. And with a notable generosity. Allowing for the likelihood that he was not altogether right and that his opponents were not altogether wrong created space for Lincoln to resist malice and extend charity even toward those with whom he was at war.
We would do well to cultivate the virtues of humility and generosity that we too might live with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Getting off the Fence – Interpreting Scripture

When it comes to making Christian sense of the phenomena of same-sex sexual attraction, much depends on how we read scripture. But, that draws us into a much deeper and broader challenge in the contemporary church. There is a good deal of uncertainty across the church as to how best to engage the scriptures and a loss of confidence in some old assumptions about how to do so. One sign of this is the turn to early Church tradition for guidance among Evangelicals.

Absent a Magisterium , as in the Roman Catholic Church, we are left to make sense of scripture in a context in which there is no straightforward, agreed upon, and authoritative hermeneutic for interpreting the writings we believe to be inspired by God and authoritative for the church. The inevitable result is that faithful, pious Christians often come to different conclusions interpreting the scriptures on a given matter. Even people who basically agree on the authority and inspiration of scripture and how it should be read often come to quite different conclusions on important issues.

We all need to give more attention to the interpretive principles by which we configure scripture such that some themes and passages are given more weight than others. And we all need to practice a good deal more charity and humility toward one another when we disagree.

Before looking at any particular passage of scripture that mentions same-sex sexual relations, it is important to look at what makes for faithful interpretations of scripture in general. I’ve attempted a constructive proposal for engaging scripture elsewhere (see The King or a Fox). Everything that follows should be understood in the context of that series of posts. In this post I want to elaborate on one of the criteria I suggested for interpreting scripture – the Criterion of Love, which is closely related to another, the Criterion of Jesus Christ.

St. Augustine on the double love of God and neighbor

St. Augustine, in his guide to interpreting scripture, argued that the fundamental key to faithful interpretation is Jesus’ summary of the law:

‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:38-40)

It is to teach us how to do these two things rightly that we were given the scriptures in the first place. Augustine goes so far as to make this rather startling claim:

So anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not yet succeeded in understanding them. Anyone who derives from them an idea which is useful for supporting this love but fails to say what the author demonstrably meant in the passage has not made a fatal error, and certainly is not a liar. (On Christian Teaching [De Doctrina Christiana], English trans. R. P. H. Green (New York, Oxford University Press, 1997), 27)

Though this sounds remarkable, the idea that the building up of the double love of God and neighbor is the key for interpreting scripture is at least as well-founded in scripture as is Luther’s insistence that everything be interpreted through the lens of salvation by faith through grace. In fact, Luther, himself, asserted that “faith and love are always to be mistresses of the law.”

Not only does Jesus give us the summary of the law, he applies it himself in a way that was shocking to his contemporaries when he insisted that "The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27).

Paul makes several references to the centrality of Jesus’ summary of the law (cf. Romans 13:8-10, Galatians 5:13-14, Galatians 6:2). And the apostle seems to apply it as a key to discerning moral questions in his first letter to the church in Corinth:

“All things are lawful for me," but not all things are beneficial. "All things are lawful for me," but I will not be dominated by anything.
(1 Corinthians 6:12)

"All things are lawful," but not all things are beneficial. "All things are lawful," but not all things build up.
(1 Corinthians 10:23)

It does not seem particularly ‘revisionist’ to agree with Augustine that interpretations that “build up this double love of God and neighbor” are to be preferred and that the test for whether or not an interpretation is in the ballpark of faithfulness is whether or not it can be demonstrated to do so. And if, as Jesus says, the Sabbath is made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath; might we entertain that if an interpretation of scripture seems to thwart the flourishing of members of the body of Christ that that interpretation needs to be looked at afresh? And if, as Paul says, the fundamental criteria on moral questions are what is beneficial for Christian freedom and the building up of the body of Christ and individual members of that body, might we ask in the case of Christians who are romantically and sexually attracted to members of the same sex, “What is beneficial? What enables them to not be ‘dominated’? What builds them up? Would the blessing of Same-sex Unions build up the church? Would such unions inherently get in the way of its being built up?" Article XX of the Articles of Religion enjoins us not to "expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another." Might we ask of any interpretation of scripture, "Is it repugnant to the double love of God and neighbor?"

Not simple, sentimental, or easy

The double love of God and neighbor is not simple, sentimental, or easy. To love God requires us to know God – through the witness of the Bible, through worship and prayer, through the witness of tradition and the saints, and through the witness of creation. That also requires continual self-scrutiny lest we construct an image of God that suits us and then love the image we have formed for ourselves. To love our neighbor also requires that we actually come to know our neighbor. That too requires continual self-scrutiny to examine our own resistance to love and our tendency to project onto others what we already think they are or should be as characters of the story of our own making. The double love of God and neighbor requires taking up the cross and denying ourselves.

A Roman Catholic principle of interpretation
Interestingly, the Roman Catholic Church has a similar principle of scriptural interpretation. According to the official teaching body of the Catholic Church, the Pontifical Biblical Commission, Catholic readers of the Scripture have a positive duty to avoid certain sorts of what the authorities call ‘actualization’ of the texts, by which they mean reading ancient texts as referring in a straightforward way to modern realities:

“Clearly to be rejected also is every attempt at actualization set in a direction contrary to evangelical justice and charity, such as, for example, the use of the Bible to justify racial segregation, anti-Semitism or sexism whether on the part of men or of women. Particular attention is necessary... to avoid absolutely any actualization of certain texts of the New Testament which could provoke or reinforce unfavorable attitudes to the Jewish people”. (The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, IV.3)

While there are plausible – maybe even probable – interpretations of scripture ‘contrary to evangelical justice and charity’ they are to be avoided. Interpretations that reflect and reinforce justice and charity are more faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Of course, current official Roman Catholic teaching does not conclude from this that justice and charity rightly understood lead to the ordination of women or the blessing of Same-sex Unions. But, that merely raises the question of how we discern what is just and what is charitable.

What it is and isn't about

If Same-sex Unions can be a faithful state for Christians it is not about ‘inclusion’ which, in and of itself, is an empty concept. It is not merely a matter of declaring that ‘God loves everyone. Period.’ Few Christians would deny that. But it is an insufficiently Christian declaration (see God’s Love is not Enough).  Nor is it about ‘respecting the dignity of every human being’. Of course we should live into that part of the Baptismal Covenant.  But, respect and love do not mean affirming everything we want affirmed.  Sometimes respect and love mean speaking hard truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Nor is it about sentimentalism or indulgence.

The question, it seems to me, is whether or not entering into a committed, monogamous, permanent Same-sex Union provides a fertile context for the cultivation of redemptive, sanctifying disciplines that lead to deeper love of God and love of neighbor as exemplified by Jesus. It is about pursuing the holiness of God-centered, self-emptying, cross-bearing, other-oriented love incarnated by Jesus Christ and cultivating the disciplines that enable us to embody that love in thought, word, and deed.

Friday, November 9, 2012

What do you want to be, anyway?

A Sermon for All Saints' Sunday

Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9, Psalm 24, Revelation 21:1-6a, John 11:32-44

“What do you want to be, anyway?”

That is the question a friend asked Thomas Merton not too long after his conversion from atheism to Roman Catholicism. Merton recalls this conversation in his spiritual autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain:

I forget what we were arguing about, but in the end Lax suddenly turned around and asked me the question:

“What do you want to be, anyway?”

I could not say, “I want to be Thomas Merton the well-known writer of all those book reviews in the back pages of the Times Book Review,” or “Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of Freshman English at the New Life Social Institute for Progress and Culture,” so I put the thing on the spiritual plane, where I knew it belonged and said:

            “I don’t know; I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.”

            “What do you mean, you want to be a good Catholic?”

The explanation I gave was lame enough, and expressed my confusion, and betrayed how little I had really thought about it at all.

Lax did not accept it.

“What you should say” – he told me – “what you should say is that you want to be a saint.”

A saint!  The thought struck me as a little weird.  I said:

“How do you expect me to become a saint?”

“By wanting to,” said Lax simply.

“I can’t be a saint,” I said, “I can’t be a saint.” And my mind darkened with a confusion of realities and unrealities: the knowledge of my own sins, and the false humility which makes men say that they cannot do the things that they must do, cannot reach the level that they must reach: the cowardice that says: “I am satisfied to save my soul, to keep out of mortal sin,” but which means, by those words: “I do not want to give up my sins and my attachments.”

“What do you want to be, anyway?” Why not say that you want to be a saint?

Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints’ in which we commemorate those exemplary disciples in the Church’s history who have inspired the imagination of Christians. We commemorate those who, as the Wisdom of Solomon says, “In the time of their visitation they shone forth, and ran like sparks through the stubble.” We commemorate all the saints, well known, less well known, unknown, and forgotten. We remember ‘official’ saints like Francis, Clare, Barnabas, Nicholas, Catherine, etc. and more contemporary ‘unofficial’ saints like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Mother Teresa. And we rejoice in believing that we are united with them in the one great communion of the saints.

Why commemorate the saints? It is not to do them any favor. As Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) said,

The saints have no need of honor from us; neither does our devotion add the slightest thing to what is theirs.  Clearly, if we venerate their memory, it serves us, not them. But I tell you, when I think of them, I feel myself inflamed by tremendous yearning.

The saints inspire us. If we let them, they also inflame a tremendous yearning in us to live lives of similar faithfulness, love, and joy. That yearning is the challenge of the saints. We need to be careful not to put them on a pedestal that makes them fantastical and unreal. Otherwise we will miss the challenge of the saints. And here is the challenge: all saints were made of the same stuff as you and me. By God’s grace and their own discipline they became more nearly what each of us could be, what each of us are meant to be – saints.

Of course, like Merton, we are all very aware of our own sin. But, there is also that false humility which makes us say that we cannot do the things that we must do, cannot reach the level that we must reach: the cowardice that says: “I am satisfied with not being any better or worse than most people” but which really means, “I do not want to give up my sins and my attachments.”

But, when we are honest with ourselves we know that that leaves us off balance and keeps us from entering more fully into the love and joy and peace that we believe God desires to pour into every crook and cranny of our lives. And it keeps us from being that love and joy and peace in the world around us.

What do you want to be, anyway? Why not say that you want to be is a saint?

What is a saint? Here is a description from one of my favorite singers, Leonard Cohen:

What is a saint? A saint is someone who has achieved a remote human possibility. It is impossible to say what that possibility is. I think it has something to do with the energy of love. Contact with this energy results in the exercise of a kind of balance in the chaos of existence. A saint does not dissolve the chaos; if he did the world would have changed long ago. I do not think that a saint dissolves the chaos even for himself, for there is something arrogant and warlike in the notion of a man setting the universe in order. It is a kind of balance that is his glory. He rides the drifts like an escaped ski. His course is a caress of the hill.  His track is a drawing of the snow in a moment of its particular arrangement with wind and rock. Something in him so loves the world that he gives himself to the laws of gravity and chance. Far from flying with the angels, he traces with the fidelity of a seismograph needle the state of the solid bloody landscape. His house is dangerous and finite, but he is at home in the world. He can love the shapes of human beings, the fine and twisted shapes of the heart. It is good to have among us such men, such balancing monsters of love.

Balancing monsters of love. What do you want to be, anyway? Why not say that you want to be is a balancing monster of love running like a spark through the stubble?

Frederick Buechner wrote this of saints:

Maybe more than anything else, to be a saint is to know joy. Not happiness that comes and goes with the moments that occasion it, but joy that is always there like an underground spring no matter how dark and terrible the night. To be a saint is to be a little out of one's mind, which is a very good thing to be a little out of from time to time. It is to live a life that is always giving itself away and yet is always full.

What do you want to be, anyway? Why not say that you want to be a little out of you mind, living a life that is always giving itself away and yet always full – full of the joy of God, running like a spark through the stubble?

Thomas Merton, in a different book wrote this about the sanctity that typifies a saint:

Sanctity is not a matter of being less human, but more human. This implies a greater capacity for concern, for suffering, for understanding, for sympathy, and also for humor, for appreciation of the good and beautiful things of life.

What do you want to be, anyway? Why not say that you want to be more human?

Why not? Is it cowardice and false humility? Sin and attachments? Complacency with being ‘less than human’, less than fully alive? When we are honest with ourselves do we not sometimes sense that we are less than fully alive – not fully alive to God, not fully alive to others, not even fully alive to ourselves? I sense it in myself. The saints are those who are more fully alive and they inflame a yearning in us to be similarly alive.

And they challenge us to respond to Jesus calling to us, “Come out and be unbound.” We are like Lazarus. Parts of us are dead and need resurrecting. We all know well enough that there are things shut up in our hearts that would cause a stench if we uncovered them. Sin and attachments bind us like strips of grave cloth.

Jesus stands before us, weeping, desiring to fill is with his life and love and joy and peace. We need only role away the stone and allow him to have his way with us. Diligently practicing the classic spiritual disciplines is how we take away the stone – self-scrutiny and repentance, prayer and fasting, practicing the self-emptying, patient love of Jesus.

This is not about trying to get God to love us more. Through Jesus, we know that God already loves us – however dead we might be. We cannot make God love us more because God already loves us freely and completely. But our sins and our attachments can get in the way of our experiencing that love. It is not that God loves the saints more but that the saints availed themselves more to that love.

Only God can work in us the radical life-giving change in us for which we yearn. Only God can right all that unbalances us. Only God can transform us into balancing monsters of love. Only God can produce in us inner springs of joy and make us more fully human, more fully alive. But, God usually waits for us to take away the stone. If we want it, we can do the things that open us to God’s Holy transforming Spirit. Do we dare take the stone away? Do we dare ascend the hill of the LORD with the saints and stand in his holy place?

Why not say that you want to be is a balancing monster of love running like a spark through the stubble?

Why not say that you want to be a saint?