Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Getting off the Fence – Testimony (2)

“A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.” – Matthew 7:18-20

In the last post in this series, I mentioned that one of the things that had prompted me to reconsider the traditional biblical interpretation and church teaching on sexuality was the testimony of fellow believers in the church. And I gave examples of what I called the ‘negative’ testimony of the anguish of those who have tried to live into that traditional teaching. It is not just that they have found it hard, which we have every reason to expect being disciples of Jesus to be, but that they have found it to be a sacrifice that leads to death rather than life.

Now, I want to look at the ‘positive' testimony of my brothers and sisters.

Positive Testimony

In the early 1990’s I volunteered in the ‘Hand-to-Hand’ program of the San Jaoquin County AIDS Foundation in Stockton, CA. I was paired with a man, Barney, who had AIDS. Barney was straight and had requested a straight volunteer. But part of volunteering was going through some training and meeting monthly with other volunteers.

This was my first extensive engagement with gay men (it was mostly men). I remember being moved by one volunteer whose long-time partner had died of the disease. He expressed his deep grief the way any husband would express grief at the loss of his wife to cancer. Both the duration of their relationship and this man’s genuine grief did not fit the stereotype of gay men as selfish and promiscuous.

More challenging was the presence of gay men whose open faith in and reliance upon Jesus was undeniable. And these were not what one would consider ‘liberal’ Christians. Their piety was of a very Evangelical, if not Pentecostal, sort. More so than mine in some ways. Although I did not always find their explanations of how they reconciled affirming their sexuality with the Bible convincing, I could not deny the sincerity of their desire to follow Jesus.

The congregation I serve nearly closed about ten years after it was started. This was because the man who succeeded the first vicar was more than a little lacking in pastoral care, preaching, and other gifts that one hopes for in a priest. But more problematic was his inability to control himself sexually. He had more than one sexual encounter with women of the congregation. This was understandably devastating to the life of the parish. Many left and the handful that remained were demoralized. The bishop replaced this priest with Fr. George. Though in the early to mid 70’s being ‘out’ was not an option, Fr. George was gay. Undeniably faithful and pious, Fr. George turned things around and put a stamp on the character of St. Barnabas. He reached out to Wheaton College and accompanied many a young Evangelical on the ‘Canterbury Trail’ (a book, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, was written by Robert Webber who joined St. Barnabas when Fr. George was vicar). He is now retired with his partner in another state. I am grateful to be one of his successors and hope to be as faithful a pastor and priest as he was.

Over the years, members of my congregation have ‘come out’ to me, or, as I put it in a prior post, ‘let me in’ on their life. I have had extensive conversations with them and others In the Diocese of Chicago. As a group, their piety and seriousness about their commitment to Christ is no different from that of other Christians I know. Or mine.

I have also gotten to know some gay and lesbian clergy colleagues in the Diocese of Chicago. It might be a surprise to some to know that several of the gay clergy I know are quite creedally orthodox and critical of liberal theology.

Finally, there are some gay theologians and spiritual writers for whom I have great respect generally who have written in favor of the bless-ability of Same-sex blessings (SSU). I mentioned  Martin Smith in the previous post, as one whose faithfulness is evident. James Alison is a openly gay Roman Catholic monk and thus celibate. Nonetheless, he has encouraged his church to rethink its teaching on the subject using arguments based on official Roman Catholic theology. I have benefited from his writing on theology generally and on this topic. I have also appreciated Eugene Rogers, a lay Episcopalian theologian. Not only do these men exhibit a commitment to orthodox Christianity, they demonstrate in their writing and the presence, a godly spirit of humility and generosity.

Of course I have also known gays and lesbians whose theology I consider suspect and whose character does not bear the marks of spiritual maturity. But that is just as much the case among straight people..

I know gays and lesbians who are desirous of living into the fullness of God’s will. I know gays and lesbians who robustly affirm the creeds and traditional Christian discipline in other areas and expect SSU to conform to the expectations and disciplines that have traditionally been the marks of Christian marriage. I know gays and lesbians who have lived into those expectations and disciplines faithfully for many years, often with little or no communal or ecclesial support.

What to make of this testimony?

We could dismiss it given that, in spite of Jesus’ words quoted at the beginning of this post, we know that, often enough, people who are in many ways good do indeed do bad things and are unable to shake the habits of some bad behavior. And we could (actually, we should) acknowledge that human beings are expert and creative rationalizers of their behavior. Maybe that is what is going on here. Our brothers and sisters might be blind to their sin in this area while remaining brothers and sisters to whom we still owe love and understanding even if we cannot condone behavior we are persuaded is sin.

But, I wonder. It does certainly seem to be the case that sometimes good trees bear bad fruit and bad trees appear to bear good fruit. And it is also certainly true that we are masters of rationalization. But, there is more to it than that. It is not simply the case that the more mature in Christ we become – the more good the tree – the more good fruit we will bear and the less bad. It is that ‘good trees’ become increasingly self-aware through the discipline of self-scrutiny and less inclined to rationalize and thus better able to repent of their bad fruit. One need not be an especially good tree to begin to see this. Most of the time we have some inkling that rationalizing is what we are about. Or, if in the moment, denial has the upper hand, we see it looking back on our life.

Similarly most of us know what lust feels like and how it plays in the imagination of our hearts. Those of us who are married know the difference between that and the desire we feel for our spouse. And that difference is about much more than the fact that we have a marriage certificate on file. One could say much the same about greed, gluttony, sloth, envy, malice, selfishness and other sins. The more mature we become, the better able to make those distinctions.

So, when Christians who give every indication of being mature, good fruit-bearing trees of faith say that they know what good fruit (virtue) ‘feels’ like and they know what bad fruit (sin) ‘feels’ like, and that their same-sex attraction and intercourse is more like the former than the latter, I suggest the rest of us should at least listen.

“Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God's Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else's scrutiny.” (1 Corinthians 2:14-15)

Given the testimony of mature brothers and sisters, might we wonder if we are in a situation similar to Peter’s when the Spirit fell upon gentiles who he would not otherwise have expected to be candidates for that gift?

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" (Acts 44-47)

Next:Interpreting Scripture
Previous: Testimony (1)

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Laughter is Eternity if Joy is Real

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,
then were we like those who dream.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy.
(Psalm 126:1-2)

The beginning of the Psalm 126 has me thinking about this advertisement for Volkswagon:

And of the U2 song, Get on Your Boots, which contains these lines:
Free me from the dark dream
Candy bars, ice cream
All the kids are screaming but the ghosts aren't real
Here's what you gotta be
Love and community
Laughter is eternity if the joy is real


We have a basic choice:
To live rooted in fear
To live rooted in delight.
Why one or the other?

Jesus said, "I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete." (John 15:11)
If what Jesus says is true, not just here but all that he said and all that he did, and if what the Church has understood him to have accomplished,  then our mouths should be filled with laughter, and our tongues with shouts of joy.

Laughter is eternity because joy is real.
See also:



Thursday, October 25, 2012

Getting off the Fence – Testimony (1)

If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in.
– Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark

Given the obstacles I listed in an earlier post, why would I vote in favor of the provisional rite of same-sex blessing (SSU)? My response will mostly come under three headings:

• Testimony of brothers and sisters within the church.
• Commitment to the pursuit of holiness.
• Engagement with the Bible as the Word of God

Two caveats at the outset:

1. I have no illusions that what I am offering is novel, thorough, or in any sense a ‘game-changer’.
2. That I have come to a certain conclusion on the topic does not mean that I think it is the only legitimate, respectable, or faithful conclusion.

So, why reconsider?

Testimony of brothers and sisters in Christ

It is a common charge that this is just a matter of the church accommodating the surrounding culture. Though I have been critical of my church’s apparent cultural captivity (and never mind that I think conservative Christians are often captive to culture as well), I don’t think it is always and only that.

What has provoked me to take another look and ultimately change my mind has not been what is going on outside the church. Rather it has largely been the testimony of brothers and sisters within the church.

That testimony is of two kinds. One is ‘negative’ and the other ‘positive’.

Negative Testimony and Collateral Damage
Over the years several Christians have ‘come out’ to me, or, as it has always felt, 'let me in' on their life. I have heard many stories of desperate attempts to change through prayer, determined willpower, various ‘healing ministries’, etc. All to no avail.

The testimony I have heard and the fact that leaders of ‘ex-gay’ movements frequently end up denying the efficacy of the ‘reparative’ healing therapies they have advocated (see here, here, and most recently, here,) calls into question the significance some conservatives place on such movements and the reliability of examples of change. I suspect the emphasis placed on such healing ministries is actually not as much about evidence of real change as it is about the need for some – mainly heterosexuals – to believe real change is possible for their own comfort in maintaining the way they understand things. I find much more credible the testimony of brothers and sisters like those I mentioned in the last post who have chosen the hard discipline of celibacy. Their testimonies must not be denied. But, I wonder, given the preponderence of other testimony, if the call to celibacy and the denial of all romance is adequate or necessarily the only faithful option for everyone.
I have also heard many testimonies of gay and lesbian brothers and sisters who have tried heterosexual marriage. The result is rarely happy. Most end in divorce. I know fairly well the story of one such marriage that did not end in divorce. The couple was married in the days before coming out was an option, especially in conservative Christian circles. She did not learn he was gay until some time after they married. In spite of years of infidelity on his part, they stayed together, raised a family, and remained married until his death. In many ways theirs is a testimony of admirable sacrificial commitment that included more than a little grace. But, I also know enough about the story to know the emotional toll it took not just on the couple but on their children. And I know she now has serious reservations about the wisdom of entering into such a marriage. She does not recommend it. And her experience has made her considerably less conservative when it comes to questions of sexuality.

Then there are stories of physical and verbal bullying that gays and lesbians experience frequently. Martin Smith, the former superior of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, is someone whose maturity in the faith I respect. He led a retreat at St. Barnabas a few years ago. Here is his testimony about the threat of abuse: Matters of Life and Death. I do not know anything about the faith of Joel Burns, but the stories he shares, including his own are too common. At the very least, Christians need to ask if the way they talk about those who experience same-sex attraction contributes to this. Silence, let alone the refusal to speak against such bullying, is not an option for Christians who desire to follow the example of Jesus. Stories like this are not encouraging.

And there is the testimony of Christian parents of gay and lesbian children. Some parents reject their children when they come out. I know others who have loved their children even as they have been clear about their disapproval of their behavior. For most, having a child come out has provoked a rethinking of their prior convictions. It is telling that nothing seems to change people’s minds like having a gay son or a lesbian daughter.

But mostly, I am haunted by the stories like that of Stephen who occasionally attended my congregation, St. Barnabas, in the mid 1980’s while a student a Wheaton College (an Evangelical school in a nearby suburb). Though I did not arrive here until 2000, according to the newspaper clipping in my files, Stephen, who was gay, left the college campus one day and stepped in front of a train. According to witnesses, he assumed a posture of prayer as he waited for the train (where, I wonder, did he hope it would take him?). I do not know if he was consumed with self-loathing, if he despaired of being able to contain what he considered to be sinful desires, was rejected by his family, feared that rejection, or some combination of the above, but the burden seemed unbearable and led him to a drastic and tragic means of resolution. I have spoken with more than one person who knew Stephen and it is clear that his struggle with his sexuality played a part in his suicide.

I know this is not a unique story. Most testimonies I have heard from gay and lesbian brothers and sisters have included deep and abiding anguish. Though not universal, suicidal thoughts or attempts are a common theme. At the very least, Christians must be sensitive to the reality of these stories. I wonder if they are stories of the collateral damage of maintaining the traditional teaching. That teaching has much to commend it. But, I wonder if the shadow of that teaching is that many are consigned to lives of despair and death. Are we calling gays and lesbians to a living sacrifice for the sake of their souls or to a sacrifice of death for the sake of the rest of us? I will come back to sacrifice and self-conrol in a later post (See Reclaiming Self-control). I think it is a concept all Christians need to reclaim in pursuit of holness.

If, as scripture charges, we are to fulfill the law by bearing one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), we are obliged to listen carefully and sympathetically to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters when they plead for a hearing in the church. Many have sought to live into the traditional discipline and have found it to be not a dying to self that leads to life but a dying that leads only to death (see here for another example). If liberals have not done a very good job of explaining how SSU fit into the logic of Christianity, conservatives have not done a very good job of demonstrating how the traditional discipline is really good news for their brothers and sisters who are gay or lesbian. 

When Jesus declared that the Sabbath was made for humans rather than the other way around, I wonder if part of what he was declaring was a rejection of moral calculations that find such collateral damage acceptable. Perhaps we need to “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’”

This is not so much an argument as a explanation of why I have been willing to rethink the argument. And, again, I concede that this does not necessarily require coming to a more affirming conclusion. For me, though, these testimonies raise questions about the goodness of the traditional discipline expected of gay and lesbian Christians and make me willing to reconsider that discipline.

Next: Positive Testimony

Previous: Obstacles

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Are you able to drink the cup that I drink

This Sunday’s gospel (Mark 10:35-45) is a reminder that following Jesus is no picnic. It makes clear that sharing in his baptism and communing with him in the drinking of his cup implicates us in his self-emptying, cross-bearing mission.

That means dying to our own pride and pretensions. It means acknowledging our own infirmities and diseases, transgressions and iniquities (Isaiah 53); and allowing his spirit to work a (sometimes severe) regimen of healing and forgiveness in us.

It means submissive self-mastery over our own desires. It means letting go of our presumed prerogatives to embrace the way of humility and servanthood. It means responding to his call to live a defenseless life of mercy that exposes us to the infirmities, disease, and iniquities of others that we might be his instruments of healing and reconciliation on the earth.

To imagine that we can avoid the way of the cross and go directly to the glory and honor of a place at his right or left is presumptuous. No, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer asserted in Cost of Discipleship, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

To be sure, we are called to die that we might live. But, let’s not forget which comes first.

This passage is also a reminder that drinking the cup of Jesus is a perilous thing that implicates us in a community, commits us to a mission, and places us under judgement. Communion with Jesus and his body, the Church, is not only about affirmation and inclusion. To invite those who have not been initiated into a share in his baptism to drink his cup with all that entails is presumptuous and irresponsible. It is cheap grace. Cheap inclusion. Cheap hospitality.

More from Bonhoeffer on cheap grace vs costly grace:

Cheap Grace
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly Grace
Such grace is costly because it call us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost the life of his Son: "ye were brought with a price," and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Getting Off the Fence – Obstacles

For years I have wrestled with questions about the faithful options for Christians who are romantically and sexually attracted to others of the same sex. It has been a topic of conversation and debate in the church for decades and has consumed the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion for the last ten years. I have long described myself as ‘on the fence’ – open to considering a rethinking of the interpretation of scripture and tradition, but not persuaded by the arguments for doing so. There are people who I respect who have come to differing conclusions. As one of my seminary professors liked to say, "Some of my friends say this, some of my friends say that, and I always agree with my friends." But over the last couple of years I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with my fence-sitting. Though cautious by nature, I knew I had to risk a more definite position on the subject however complicated, confusing, and contentious.

This all came to a head last summer when, as a deputy to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, I was called upon to vote for or against a provisional rite of blessing for same-sex unions (SSU). With fear and trembling, I voted yes. In following posts I want to try to explain how I have come to get off the fence on the side that I have.

But first I want to list some of the obstacles that have made that difficult and cause me to remain fairly close to the fence:

1. It is no small thing to adopt a position that is counter to what has been the consistent teaching of the Church and remains the understanding of the vast majority of Christians. Any scriptural argument affirming the bless-ability of Same-sex Unions (SSU) is less than straightforward at best, as even some of its proponents have admitted, e.g., Walter Wink and Luke Timothy Johnson.

2. Most of the arguments – scriptural, theological, or otherwise – for SSU are tendentious and thus convincing only to those who are already convinced or want to be convinced.

3. Most biblical scholars and theologians who I hold in high esteem who have commented on the topic have argued against the bless-ability of SSU, e.g., Raymond Brown, N. T. Wright, Richard B. Hayes, Oliver O’Donovan, Wolfhart Pannenberg.

4. While it is true that one way or another, the topic of same-sex sexuality has been discussed in various contexts in the Episcopal Church for some decades, I have seen little evidence of genuine conversation and precious little deep and sympathetic listening. And much that has passed for conversation has been manipulative.

5. What exactly is our teaching? The argument in favor of SSU in the Episcopal Church has been ad hoc and uneven. It has been ad hoc inasmuch as there are multiple and not altogether compatible attempts at making the case. And it has been uneven inasmuch as the quality of the argument has varied considerably, much of it frankly, quite bad. This makes it hard to know just what the Episcopal Church actually teaches on the subject.

What is that teaching?

Is it the same as John Spong’s (Living in Sin?), rooted in a reductionist, rationalistic rejection of anything like classic Christian doctrine and discipline?

Or maybe it is more like William Countryman in Dirt, Greed, & Sex, who reduces biblical sexual ethics to ancient obsessions with purity and property (simplistic and misleading in my opinion). In that case, do we agree that, “[T]he gospel allows no rule against the following, in and of themselves: masturbation, nonvaginal heterosexual intercourse, bestiality, polygamy, homosexual acts, or erotic art and literature [i.e., pornography]” (p. 243)?

Or is our affirmation ultimately based on modern individualistic, consumerist notions of self-actualization, disdain for limits, and individual rights? One gets the impression that for some in the church any argument that leads to the ‘right’ conclusion is acceptable because that conclusion seems so obviously right to them that it needs no real defense.

Or are we advocating something more like Eugene Rogers (Sexuality and the Christian Body: Their Way into the Triune God) who approaches the question in terms of what leads to the holiness of disciplined, self-sacrificial love?

It is hopeful that Rogers was one of the authors of ,and his approach was reflected in, 'The Liberal View' (beginning on p. 40) in the document on Same-Sex Relationships in the Life of the Church submitted to the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church in 2010. If this is closer to our 'official' position, it would be helpful if our leaders publicly articulated it in those terms and, just as importantly, made it clear that we reject the other arguments.
6. The Episcopal Church has done a clumsy job of it. Consecrating Gene Robinson before/without revising the marriage canon was an end-run around the hard work of building a new consensus that such revising was meet and right so to do. However uneven, difficult, and drawn out it seemed, there was a conversation that might have led to more of a consensus if that conversation had not been prematurely cut off.

One does not need to be narrowly conservative to wonder if some inconvenient bits of the Book of Common Prayer and Canons got ignored or finessed. I am convinced that the exercise of more patience and prudence would have avoided much of the turmoil and division we have experienced over the last ten years. As Aquinas would say, how we achieve something is as important to it's being virtuous as what we achieve. And while those who have resisted or pursued schism as a result share the blame, the general dismissiveness by ‘progressives’ toward ‘traditionalists’ has belied their talk of inclusivity. Schism can be provoked as well as pursued.

7. Too often, those arguing for SSU offer no comprehensive sexual ethic that has any continuity with what has heretofore been considered faithful Christian discipline. Indeed, much is dismissive of anything like that discipline or indistinguishable from what one might expect to hear from Oprah or read in the heirs of Dear Abby.

8. Given the Episcopal Church’s seeming inability generally to discern the difference between a gospel imperative and liberal/progressive prejudice it is no wonder many suspect us of merely accommodating one segment of worldly culture. As I have written elsewhere, there is a sort of idolatry in the Episcopal Church that compromises our witness.

9. I do not think the giveness of male and female and their sexual complementarity can be dismissed – as even some advocates of SSU acknowledge, e.g. Jeffrey John.

10. I respect the sacrificial self-discipline of those like Wesley Hill, Chad Thompson, and Eve Tushnet who have embraced celibacy in their determination to live faithfully according the traditional Christian sexual ethic.

11. Our understanding of abstractions like love, holiness, justice, etc. is provisional. So is the interpretation of scripture. This side of the kingdom they will be incompletely understood, let alone lived. Thus, it is in the widest communion possible that interpretations and definitions of Christian faithfulness, however provisional, are best discerned. As an Anglican, I take the Anglican Communion to be the most adequate body for such discernment.

12. Being part of the Anglican Communiona trans-national Christian body– is a basic reason I am an Episcopalian. The actions and reactions on this issue have done great harm to that communion. This was perhaps the most significant obstacle for me. I have been an advocate for the Anglican Communion Covenant. I would still like to see something like the Covenant adopted – even if that meant that the Episcopal Church might serve some time on probation or something.

So . . .

Given all that, along with the way it complicates my relationship with many friends and some members of my congregation who are persuaded otherwise, why vote in favor of the provisional right of same-sex blessing? That is what I will try to explain beginning with my next post.

Next: Testimony (1)

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Indulging Unnatural Passions

Unnatural passions are destructive of holy thoughts, spiritual knowledge, and pure prayer. What does that assertion bring to mind? Or, for that matter, when Paul warns, “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions” (Romans 6:12) what comes to mind? I suspect that in both cases the first thought for most of us has to do in one way or another with sex.

But, the New Testament and the early church have a more expansive idea of what constitutes sinful passion. In the early church, ‘passions’ was a technical term that refers 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. And many in the early church believed that things we have come to take for granted were in fact unnatural passions. For example:

The love and accumulation of possessions is unnatural:
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
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 the Russian Rendition)

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

Gluttony is unnatural
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

Of course, lust ,or unchastity, is also unnatural

Let us look at it in this fashion. Movement occurs in the sexual organs not only of young children who cannot yet distinguish between good and evil, but also of the smallest infants still at their mother's breast. The latter, although quite ignorant of sensual pleasure, nevertheless manifest such natural movements in the flesh. Similarly, the incensive power [the energy created in us to resist evil] exists in infants, as we can see when they are roused against anyone hurting them. I say this not to accuse nature of being the cause of sin - heaven forbid!- but to show that the incensive power and desire, even if implanted in man by the Creator for a good purpose, appear to change through neglect from being natural in the body into something that is unnatural. Movement in the sexual organs was given to us by the Creator for procreation and the continuation of the species, not for unchastity; while incensive power was planted in us for our salvation, so that we could manifest it against wickedness, but not so that we could act like wild beasts towards our fellow men. Even if we make bad use of these passions, nature itself is not therefore sinful, nor should we blame the Creator. A man who gives someone a knife for some necessary and useful purpose is not to blame if that person uses it to commit murder.
– John Cassion, On the Eight Vices

These ‘passions’ are unnatural for several reasons. They 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 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.

No virtue makes flesh-bound man so like a spiritual angel as does self-restraint, for it enables those still living on earth to become, as the Apostle says, 'citizens of heaven’ (cf. Phil. 3:20).
– John Cassion, On the Eight Vices

But, being self-indulgent, they do not realize how their soft living constantly breeds new and extravagant desires.
– St Neilos, Ascetic Discourse

He who always concentrates on the inner life becomes restrained, long-suffering, kind and humble. He will also be able to contemplate, theologize and pray. That is what St Paul meant when he said: ‘Walk in the Spirit’(Gal. 5:16).
One ignorant of the spiritual path is not on his guard against impassioned conceptual images, but devotes himself entirely to the flesh. He is either a glutton, or licentious, or full of resentment, anger and rancor. As a result he darkens his intellect, or he practices excessive asceticism and so confuses his mind.
– Maximos the Confessor, Four Hundred Texts on Love, Fourth Century

We live in an affluent, indulgent society. Christians in this society are not much less self-indulgent than our secular neighbors. We show little sign of being less gluttonous, less consumed with the accumulation of money and stuff, or less given to expressions of anger toward others (and one another). We are, in short, out of control and living unnaturally.

I am convinced that this is the root of our spiritual torpor. If we want to experience and live more of the love, joy and peace for which we were created and that God desires for us, we will want to commit ourselves to the cultivation of those classic virtues and disciplines like simplicity and generosity, patience and gentleness, moderation and fasting – as well as chastity. All of these are rooted in a kind of mastery of self that is quite counter-cultural. But, they only seem unnatural because we have indulged for too long in forgetfulness of who we are meant to be and indulged in what is unnatural.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Rich Man (That’s Us)

A Sermon on Mark 10:17-27
Year B, 18 Pentecost, Proper 23
For thirty years Thomas Cannon was a postal worker. During that time rarely made more than $30,000 a year including overtime. What made Thomas Cannon unusual is the fact that over the last twenty-five of those years, he gave away $96,000 to various individuals and groups in need. Math has never been my forte, but I figure that comes to about $3,800 a year. On a salary of $30,000 a year!

Cannon said, "If people work hard to buy a Cadillac, nobody asks why. But if they give it to philanthropy, nobody understands."

In his entire life, Cannon, who died in 2005, never knew luxury. His preacher father died when Thomas was 3 years old. Although he received a degree in art education from Hampton Institute, Cannon opted for the steady salary of the post office to support his wife, Princetta, and their two sons. After serving in the Navy in World War II, Cannon settled into his post office job. The family lived in a tiny, kerosene-heated home in a neighborhood of Richmond that was poor even then and has since acquired a reputation as a drug marketplace. Cannon never gave a thought to luxuries: "We had food, we had clothes, we had all the basic necessities," he said. (Who needs $96,000?) Here was a man with a carefree and generous attitude toward money.
(From Parade Magazine, September 21, 1997, page 16)

Which brings us to this morning's gospel.A man ran up to Jesus and asked, "What must I do to inherit eternal life? I've followed the commandments to a “T” and led a blameless life. Surely, that's enough." Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said, "You lack one thing. Go, sell what you own, give your money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me." In other words, “If you want heaven, if you want to start shaping your life in that direction now, if you want to point your heart toward your deepest joy; you lack one thing. Go, sell what you own, give your money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me."

As if that weren't bad enough, after the man refused his offer, Jesus said, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." Ouch! It is one of those hard passages that begs to be played with so that it will say something other than what it seems to say. Surely Jesus didn't mean to say it is impossible for people with more than enough money to go to heaven. After all, that's you and me. We are the rich man. The rich people. Just by virtue of the fact that we live in the United States, let alone that we live in comfortable suburbs of a major city. By any standard, past or present, we are among the wealthy.

This gospel is hard for us to hear – and not for us only. The rich man was shocked. The disciples were perplexed and astonished. Ever since, people have found this a problematic text. Consequently, various ways have been proposed to interpret this passage in order to make it softer.

1) A particularly popular one is that the eye of the needle refers to a narrow gate in the city wall of Jerusalem. A camel, the story goes, could just squeeze through the gate after being relieved of its cargo. NO. There is no evidence of such a gate and the interpretation does not show up until the late middle ages when an imaginative monk put it in a commentary on the gospel.

2) The Greek word for camel is spelled like the Greek word for rope. A rope still won't fit through the eye of a needle, but it is less preposterous than a camel. NO. There is no evidence that the writer of the Gospel of Mark had a spelling problem or that Jesus did not pronounce his words clearly.

3) Jesus is only referring to those who trust in their money. NO. That’s not what it says. Look again. Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.” Someone who is rich. Period. John Wesley was probably right when he explained that, “[I]t is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for those who have riches not to trust in them.”

There’s no getting around it. Jesus said what he said and meant what he said. He was a master of hyperbole, the exaggerated image. The absurd image of a camel trying to get through the eye of a needle drives home a point. And the point is that there is something perilous, spiritually, about wealth. Like anything in our lives, money and wealth can be used as a means to praise and serve God and neighbor. Or it can be used to hide and shield us from God and others. The problem is money and wealth have a particular and powerful tendency toward the latter. Jesus suggests that the best thing we can do with our wealth is give as much of it away as we can.

The burden of wealth offers us great opportunities and responsibilities. It might or might not be that being wealthy is, in and of itself, sinful. But wealth and money are particularly dangerous to the soul. Money, along with the things it can get for us, is not neutral such that it can be used just as easily for God's kingdom as for anything else. No, money has a power of its own. It takes a good deal of spiritual discipline to have much of it and not let it seduce our hearts or intoxicate us.

Money is a lot like wine that way. You can get drunk on it and destroy your relationship with God and your neighbor. And just as many alcoholics deny they have a drinking problem, few of us are willing to admit that we have a money problem, that we have an attachment to our money and belongings that is dangerous to our souls and separates us from God.

You can use wine to get drunk. You can also use it to make Eucharist. The Eucharist is the particular place where we enter into communion with God and one another. Perhaps we can learn to see money eucharistically so it can also become a means of communion. How do we use our money eucharistically?

1) Remember Jesus is present with you. He is your true wealth -not your job, not your income, not your house. He is your security. He is your hope for the future. Begin to see everything else as revolving around him. The more we attach ourselves to Jesus, the more we can lose our attachment to money and stuff.

2) Trust in the power of God working in you to release you from the grip of money and
possessions. Like all addictions, this one is hard to overcome. But, Jesus assured his disciples and us that, though it is impossible for mortals, for God all things are possible.

3) Learn to see it as not an end in itself but a means to serve and encounter God. Every time we give, especially when we give until we feel it, we make room in our hearts for God’s Spirit to move in our lives and to draw us deeper into his heart and to fill with his life. Giving can become prayer and praise.

4) 'Eucharist' means 'thanksgiving'. Give thanks for al you are given. But, constantly remind yourself from whom it all comes and to whom it ultimately belongs. When we present our offering to the altar we say, "All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee." We can learn receive it with thanksgiving and pass it on in gratitude. Giving becomes a way of giving thanks, of making Eucharist.

That was the man's problem in the gospel. He had allowed himself to be deceived into believing his wealth was his own. When the real owner showed up and told him what to do with it, he was not prepared.

What if we began to imagine, to really believe, think, and act as though everything we have was on loan? A gift? Not only what we give but what we have left after we give. It's all God’s, so we are accountable for how we use all of it. The real question is not how much of my money will I give for God, but how much of God’s money do I need to keep for myself? What would God have us do with it. What if we really believed we would be held accountable?

This is a troubling passage. It is good for us to be trouble by it. Maybe it will shake us loose a bit from our attachment to money and wealth. But it does not have to be onerous or a burden. If we learn to understand our money eucharistically, it can be a sort of game. For example:

[Paraphrase the story humble Zacharias who challenged God, "Let us see who surpasses the other --Thou in sending blessings or I in scattering them! For Thou, Lord, are clearly the source of our riches and the giver of our livelihood."]

What if we at St. Barnabas made such a deal with God. What if, unlike the rich man in the Gospel, but like Thomas Cannon and Zacharius, we dared God to bless us faster than we can pass the blessings on–we who have already been blessed with so much? What would he do with us? What would he do with us–except fill us with himself. And fill us with joy beyond imagining. And lead us to eternal life.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Blessings are for Scattering

A story from the early (7th century) church apropos of this Sunday's Gospel (Mark 10:17-31):
I, [Leontius, Bishop of Neapolis on the island of Cyprus] all unworthy as I am, came up to Alexandria to revere the holy and victorious martyrs, Cyrus and John, and to enjoy their succor. While I was in Alexandria, I met with certain pious Christian men, and as we were conversing about biblical and other edifying narratives, a stranger came up to us asking alms, for, said he, 'I have only just been rescued from my captivity under the Persians'.

Now it chanced that not one of us sitting there had either a large coin or even any small change with us. A servant of one of our company happened to be with his master, he was a hot-water carrier at the baths, who received only three nomismata [a small amount of money] a year, and had a wife and two children. When the beggar was going away this man followed him quietly, took off a small silver cross he was wearing, and gave it to him, saying that besides that he had only a sixpence in the world.

Thus by chance, or rather through the good purpose of the all-wise God, I was privileged to see what he did, and deeply moved, I forthwith recounted it to the man sitting next to me, one Menas by name, a virtuous, God-fearing man who was also treasurer of the most Holy Church in the time of the glorious and ever-blessed Patriarch John.

He, seeing me astonished and full of praise for the man who had done this deed of charity, said to me: 'Do not be surprised, for he practices that virtue by tradition and from instruction.'

I replied, 'How so? For pity's sake enlighten me!"

He answered: 'He was servant to our most saintly, thrice blessed Patriarch John, and like a true son he has inherited his father's virtue. For the holy man once said to him, 'Humble Zacharias, be charitable, for then you have a promise from God through me, a miserable sinner, that neither during my lifetime, nor after my death, will God desert you.'

And this promise He keeps to the present day. For God sends him many blessings and of these he spends nothing save that which he distributes forthwith to the poor, almost reducing his own household to want. Men have often heard him say to God in exultation, 'Verily, verily, let us see who surpasses the otherThou in sending blessings or I in scattering them! For Thou, Lord, are clearly the source of our riches and the giver of our livelihood.'"
From Three Byzantine Saints, Elizabeth Dawes and Norman H. Baynes, 208-209, (St. Vladimir's Press, 1948)


Thursday, October 4, 2012

Francis and the Restoration of Creation

Today is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226). Francis is well-known for preaching to birds and other creatures. He famously ‘converted’ a wolf that was terrorizing a community (see If necessary, Use Words). There are stories of his tender regard for lambs, rabbits, and even carp. According to the stories, that tenderness and respect was returned. At the time of his death, Larks flew into his room to sing their praises and laments.
St. Bonaventure (1221-1274) proclaimed,
The meekness which is necessary, we should learn from St. Francis. For his was an extraordinary meekness, not only toward other people, but also toward animals. He called all animals ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ and we read in the story of his life how even wild animals came running to him as their friend and companion.

And Francis’ attention went beyond animals. According to another legend:
One day Francis was filled with joy because he was beginning to enjoy God in all creatures. He went through the streets singing and inviting everyone to sing along with him. Then he came upon an almond tree, and he said, ‘Brother Almond, speak to me of God,’ And the almond tree blossomed.

These are wonderful stories. But we need to be careful not to romanticize or sentimentalize Francis. His message and his life were shaped by a joyous but austere devotion to Jesus Christ and the way of the cross. And his regard for all God’s creation was rooted in the hope found in Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.
Further, we should note that the stories of Francis’ appreciation for creation are not just quaint embroidery. They are theologically significant. Nor are they unique in the Christian tradition. There are similar stories through the Church’s history.
Here are some examples from the Desert Fathers:
Abba Theon ate vegetables, but only those that did not need to be cooked. They say that he used to go out of his cell at night and stay in the company of the wild animals, giving them drink from the water he had. Certainly one could see the tracks of antelopes and wild asses and gazelles and other animals near his hermitage. These creatures always gave him pleasure.

Another account from the desert:
We came near to a tree, led by our kindly host, and there we stumbled upon a lion. At the sight of him my guide and I quaked, but the saintly old man went unfaltering on and we followed him. The wild beast – you would say it was at the command of God – modestly withdrew a little way and sat down, while the old man plucked the fruit from the lower branches. He held out his hand, full of dates; and up the creature ran and took them as frankly as any tame animal about the house; and when it had finished eating, it went away. We stood watching and trembling; reflecting as well we might what valor of faith was in him and what poverty of spirit in us.

And another:
While Abba Macarius (295-392) was praying in his cave in the desert, a hyena suddenly appeared and began to lick his feet and taking him gently by the hem of his tunic, she drew him towards her own cave. He followed her, saying, "I wonder what this animal wants me to do?" When she had led him to her cave, she went in and brought her cubs which had been born blind. He prayed over them and returned them to the hyena with their sight healed. She in turn, by way of thank offering, brought the man the huge skin of a ram and laid it at his feet. He smiled at her as if at a kind person and taking the skin spread it under him.

There are similar stories from some of the Celtic saints:
Kevin of Glendulough (d. 618), is said to have had a vision in which an angel appeared to him, telling him to build a large monastery. The angel said that, to prepare the way, he was going to level a nearby small mountain. Kevin thought about it and told the angel, "No, thank you. There are creatures who live on that mountain. That is the habitat and the home of many of God’s creatures and to destroy it – even for something as good and noble as a monastery – would be to make them homeless."
Cuthbert (634-687), Bishop of Lindisfarne, was said to have gone out at night to pray on the shore of the ocean. As you can imagine, it is cold on the shore at night in north-eastern England. The story goes that as Cuthbert prayed otters would come out of the water and wrap themselves around his naked feet to keep them warm.
And then there is the Russian saint, Seraphim of Sarov (1754-1833), who has sometimes been referred to as the Russian St. Francis given his humble way of life and unusual relationship with wild animals. For years, he lived in an isolated hermitage where only the birds and the wild beasts visited him, and he dwelt with them as Adam did in Paradise. They came at midnight and waited for him to complete his Rule of prayer. Then he would feed bears, lynxes, foxes, rabbits, and even wolves with bread from his hand. There was also a bear which would obey Seraphim and run errands for the saint.
Fanciful as these stories are they have important theological meaning:
1. They remind us that the idea that humans are somehow fundamentally separate from the rest of creation is not a Christian idea. Classically, Christians have understood themselves to be part of an enchanted cosmos and part of a co-inherent web of enchanted relations with the rest of creation.

It is really only in the modern era that Christians, shaped by secular ways of thinking, have accepted the reduction of creation to mere objects more or less useful for our own selfish ends. Along with this we have allowed our imaginations to be diminished such that we have come to see creation as mere background, more or less unimportant to God’s ultimate plan.
2. But these stories about Francis and others point to a hope and a desire that was deep in the church and is deep in the gospel. That desire, that hope, is for a creation healed and restored in harmony. Certainly, we desire harmony among people. God’s vision is for each of us to be reconciled to him. His vision is for humans to be reconciled to one another. But God’s vision is bigger than that. God’s vision and God’s intention is for all creation to be caught up in the divine love and peace. Our hope is not to escape this world, bur that this world and we in it will be healed and transformed.
These saints believed that Christ was the first fruits of the new creation, was the first fruits of that peace and harmony that is God’s desire. Their stories point to the hope that one can begin now to live a holy life of anticipation of the peaceable kingdom that Isaiah envisioned – the promise of creation in total harmony:
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
Infants will play near the hole of the cobra;
young children will put their hands into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:6-9).

Apparently, Francis and others took that seriously, or at least the stories about them take it seriously. And perhaps we should to. They wanted to begin living into it now. Christians need to allow the Holy Spirit to transform our imaginations to see again that we are part of an enchanted web of relation and that God’s splendor is present in it all. Thus all creation is worthy of reverence. And we need to reclaim the comprehensive hope that all creation will be healed, restored, and transformed by God’s resurrection power. And as those who live that hope, Christians might just reclaim the holy task of beginning now to participate in the healing of all that harms or destroys God’s holy creation and the creatures in whom God delights. There is nothing sentimental about that. But, there is much joy.

Collect for the Feast of St. Francis:
Most high, omnipotent, good Lord, grant your people grace to renounce gladly the vanities of this world; that, following the way of blessed Francis, we may for love of you delight in your whole creation with perfectness of joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.