Total Pageviews

Friday, August 31, 2012

Transubstantiaton 2:Baseball & Ontology

Yesterday I laid out my response to criticisms based on the 39 Articles. I think it fair to consider the use of this term in discussing eucharist. We honor the authority of the Reformation Document, but we still ask about truth. Lets think before we reject!

[ALERT: skip this if it is too confusing 
Ontology is not commonly taught in our schools. It is an ancient philosophical concern, asking the question, "What is 'something'?" We still use the terms. We talk about something being "essentially" this or that. The "essence" of something is what we are talking about in ontology. We might use the word 'nature' as in this example: "What is the nature of your concern?" We also use the word substance. In listening to the speeches last night at the convention one recurring theme in the discussion was "is there substance to what s/he is saying?" Substance means, in this sense, is there anything there and what is the 'anything'?  Substance is a medieval word, its etymology dates to the 13th Century. It literally means to stand under (understand), to stand firm, to be under, to present. It is a translation of hypostasis from Greek (which means under + stand) a term used extensively in discussions about Jesus' nature(s).

even more so...
The debate among the disciples of Aristotle and Plato versus the Nominalists comes into play. I cannot go there because it is so complex, but in simplistic terms the question is this. Are there only particular entities which we call by a name or does the name actually refer to an existing universal or abstract object? So when I say "there is a monkey" is "monkey" just a convenient word or does monkey refer to an exisiting nature which supercedes each individual case of "monkey-ness." Aristotle says universals exist, Plato says 'abstract objects' exist. and I do no further!]

Pick back up here:
Here is a simple illustration. Each year 900,000 baseballs are made for Major League Baseball. They are made out of the same material and are supposed to be the same size and weight. In general, one looks and feels like another. A baseball costs $17.00. What is the nature or essence of a baseball? What would you say? It is a sphere made of cowhide, yarn, rubber and glue. However, it also has a purpose and that is also part of its "identity." Its nature, in some sense, is to be an instrument for a game. It is valued for the fun it provides. But, sometimes something happens to that baseball which changes it.

Note well, the change is not physical (although there may be a physical change which accompanies the change). Here is what I mean. If you go to a ball park and one of those balls is hit off a bat into the stands, dozens of people will make every effort to catch the ball. If they do snag it, they hold it in the air as a trophy. It is not just a baseball any more. It has been changed by the process of being used in a Big League game. At my son's high school or little league games, where any number of balls are hit into foul terrritory, the ball is retrieved by whoever is nearby. If it is further away one of the boys is sent out to find it. Once found, the ball is tossed back to the umpire and returns to play. No one gets excited. No one holds it up triumphantly. The ball is a ball is a ball. Nothing special has happened to it by being played with or hit.

What exactly is the difference? Why is a ball from a Major League game changed while the ball from Luke's game is not? What is the essential difference between the two? How has the nature of one ball been differentiated from the nature of the other?

On August 7, 2007 at AT&T Park one of those $17 balls sailed into the stands in right center field in the 5th inning. The ensuing melee was far in excess of anything we typically see. Dozens of people clawed, pushed, and wrestled to grab that small, white ball. One cannot imagine a twenty dollar bill would produce such a reaction and this ball was worth less than that. Or was it? The man who hit the ball, Barry Bonds, had done this 755 times prior to that night. That was the same number of times Hank Aaron had accomplished the feat. It is called a home run and the number of times a person does it in the regular season is recorded. Because Barry was doing it for the 756th time, he was now called the "All Time Home Run Champion." And because that ball was the particular one which he hit, the essence and value of that ball was radically changed. In the seconds between leaving the pitcher's hand, hitting the bat and landing in the ravenous crowd, over the course of some 500 feet that $17 ball so dramatically changed in nature/essence/being/identity that it was now worth $750,000. It increased in value 4,400 times! That sum of money is our church's annual budget. You could buy a really nice house, furnish it, get a couple of cars and comfortably live off the rest for several years in Memphis with that. It is a whole lot of money.

What happened to the ball? To the naked eye it still looks the same. Scientific study would not reveal any difference, besides the smudge off the bat and perhaps some other minor scrapes. But any ball used in a game and hit by a bat would have similar changes to it. If you took the Bonds HR ball and tossed it in a bag with other balls like it you couldn't pick it out. The change we are talking about is not physical, it is, however, a real change.

The substance of the ball has been altered. That ball is desirable in a way that the other 899,999 are not. That ball has undergone transubstantiation. The authenticity issue always comes into play when we value objects. A painting is a painting. The beauty may be similar. But if the painter is van Gogh it is worth more than if it is the handiwork of a skill artist imitating van Gogh. AUTHENTICITY is the key.

Consecrating bread and wine, calling down the Holy Spirit of God so that "they can become for us the Body and Blood of Christ" is a real activity. The change is not physical. But when authentic, the substance is different.

The word transubstantiation is not helpful. The philosophical meanings of words are complex. But the concept is pretty clear. Dropping a bag of unconsecrated hosts or spilling a half gallon of wine makes a mess. Doing the same with the eucharist creates a different sort of problem. It borders on blasphemy. These are sacred, holy and no longer the same after consecration (mystery).

If people can "get over" their "ecclesial team" then they can ponder and consider what I am saying here. Was the ball changed when Bonds hit it? Is the bread and wine changed when we use it at eucharist? I think there is no question the answer to both is yes. Can we explain the change? Not without mental exertion. I do not think this is a slam dunk for my position. I do, however, think it makes plain that there is a possibility that it opens a way to talk about 'reality' and 'symbolism' and the experiences of life. This weekend I will add more to the discussion. Until then I offer a reflection on baseball as a mirror to see the theological issue of eucharist. Jesus and Baseball.....

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Transubstantiation 1

I stirred up the hornets' nest Sunday with my sermon on John 6. While generally it is the Liberal/Modernist whose disdain I most often experience, this week it was the "Protestant" friends of my beloved church who were less than receptive. I was informed that I strayed beyond the 39 articles. Let me start with that.

I have long lived by the principle that my own faith and beliefs shall endure the same scrutiny as my critique of others. I do not argue for my position with tenacity while refusing to listen to other points of view. Which means, of course, that I am advocating real dialogue in pursuit of the truth--however, it is sometimes the case that one engages in debate to argue for a position. This is legitimate. But it comes after listening and being critical of what I think.

So what of the 39 articles? The American Episcopal church made changes in these articles upon the split from England. One could hardly expect the church to remain under the Crown when the colonies no longer were! (articles 21, 36 & 37 for example) This means that as I read them I notice that their status is already in flux. While some would argue church governance is not important theologically, I would say that remains to be seen. What is clear, the 39 Articles are not never changing like the Ten Commandments. (Minor differences in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 which provide us with the Ten Commandments aside.) There is a second issue as well. Article 19 says, "As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria and Antioch have erred; so also has the church of Rome erred, not only in their living and manner of ceremonies but also in matters of faith." A logical conclusion is so, also, the Church of England and by extension the Episcopal Church in America. This lack of humility is reflective of the conflictual times in which the artivles were generated. This is no small thing. Are the Articles an infallible document? Were their formulation unduly shaped by ecclessial conflicts and politics and even petty human grievances?

The reason for this question is because the articles reject the term transubstantiation and claim the Jesus is only present in a heavenly and spiritual way and that sinners do not receive His body and blood in reception. While motivated by legitimate concerns about abuses and erroneous practices in the Roman church (And like all solutions, it creates new problems). One cause of this is the viciousness of competing parties. Both Rome and Canterbury have her list of martyrs. Many people were killed because they practiced an outlawed faith. Whoever was in charge at the time tended to do the killing. Such viciousness does not generate a tolerant spirit and such violence leads to extremism. The Roman church was brutal and sometimes unfair in its dealing with protestants. While real theological differences are at work, I think it naive to assume that anger and the intent to "reject all things Roman Catholic" certainly were also at play in England.

Now as a former Roman Catholic, I am hardly indifferent to all this. I am still Catholic, but I am not Roman. And Roman Catholics in America are certainly very vocal in their criticism and questioning the Roman Church. However, there is a strain of anti-catholicism which regularly rears its head among Evangelicals (conservative and liberal). The painful truth is our allegiance to Christ does not draw us together. The more devout can sometimes also be the most intolerant. Doctrines are the product of conscious theological positions and unconscious animosity and resentment.

Where does one find the doctrine of the eucharist in Scripture? While the Synoptic Gospels tell us of the Last Supper and 1 Corinthians provides teaching on the proper behavior at eucharist, it is probably John 6 which is really the most developed theology of the eucharist. I daresay that this is where the discussion should begin. And as the articles repeatedly say the Sciptures are the source, I think it fair to ask if article 28 & 29 are totally accurate. Is transubstantiation repugnant to the plain words of Scripture?

While most assume that because I am Catholic I am, therefore, gung ho for the word let me provide some closing remarks and return tomorrow to the discussion of John 6. First of all, I do not think the word helpful and I tend not to use it. However, unhelpful does not mean untrue. Secondly, Fr. Traets, my sacramentology professor at Leuven, did not teach us transubstantiation. I did not grow up a reactionary, conservative Roman Catholic and my seminary was pretty Liberal by most standards. Having tried to make the case that I will try to be objective I invite you to come along with me in this reflection and provide your own insights. So tomorrow we look more deeply.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Healing Conference

October 26-28, our Healing Ministry team (the Order of St. Luke) is hosting a conference at Memphis Marriott East hotel in Memphis. The featured speakers are Rev. Mike Endicott (from South Wales, United Kingdom) and Bishop Ruth Urban (of All Nations Anglican Church). I am, because of a series of events, the third presenter.

The obvious focus is on healing, which will be done in the context of worship and praise. Details can be found through the links below. I am more interested in talking about the importance of healing at this time. We are in full swing in the political season. Each day I hear some awful thing about one or the other candidate. This one murdered the wife of a man through his business. This one is a closet communist intent on overthrowing our nation. This one is trying to steal our money, that one has no care or concern for 99% of Americans. You know the verbage. Alongside that there is the hurricane ripping up the Gulf Coast and the poignant reminder that there could be more, or maybe some other sort of horror lurking in our near future. Horrors like a nuclear exchange in the Middle East, perhaps?

Economic calamity and the growing population of elderly (a group which is statistically most likely to increase in size and fragility in the next two decades) are a perfect storm of supply decreasing and demand increasing. Math informs us that there are limits on what you can do and we have exceeded those limits some time ago.

If God is in charge why so much pain? In the New Testament, illness was one manifestation of the "other kingdoms" which rule our earth. God, at least in some significant sense of the word, is not in charge. His Kingdom is to come and we watch and wait for it. However, even now, God is at work among us. Much of that is anticipatory grace. As one friend used to say, "it is a preview of coming attractions." When Jesus healed and exorcised, people were made new, they were reintegrated into their community, they 'had a life' once again. In our own age, the reach of Jesus extends much further. No longer limited by His human condition to Galilee and its environs, Jesus' body is now the entire church across the earth. However, because He does not reign completely at this time, He has given control of His body to us. This is why churches have scandals, fail in mission and provide empty worship (to name a small portion of our problems). We are not doing what Jesus wants us to do all the time. One area where the church (in broad terms)  has particularly been lacking is in the healing and exorcising realm. In my life time the Catholic church "changed" the sacrament of annointing. In my childhood it was called Last Rites. In fact, as a young priest, any sign of annointing oil was  a signal to the hospitalized person that they were a goner! By recapturing the original purpose of the sacrament, healing the sick, the Roman church made a big step in the right direction. In the Episcopal church we have a similar practice of annointing. However, following the Protestant claim that Jesus only instituted Baptism and Holy Eucharist, the status of healing is a bit sketchy. Most look to James (call the elders of the church) as the basis of the church practice. It seems to me that Jesus' instructions to the apostles included preaching, healing and exorcising. But it seems that is not an acceptable justification for calling healing a sacrament instituted by Christ.

The greatest healing is salvation. The deepest healing is also spiritual, emotional, and mental . But we are not angels, we are humans, and physical resurrection is our destiny (not endless existence as souls). Healing is a powerful reminder that our bodies do matter. We are body and soul. Much of the brain research has re-emphasized that. We are what we are by virtue of our bodies. When we are sick it impacts how well we live. God cares about our bodies, in fact He cares enough that He took one on Himself.

For those who are mulling over how the church could be better about the healing ministry I think the conference will provide a good starting place. But whether you come or not, in a deeply wounded world, our vocation to continue the healing ministry of Jesus remains intact. People need it, badly. We offer it. Let's do it, in the Name of Jesus and His Kingdom for the glory of God!

Two nights and five meals, several prayer services and several teaching sessions. It runs $250 a person in double occupancy or $345 for single room if you register by October 5 (an additional $25 after that date). For locals who just want to attend the sessions, it costs $35 (which covers lunch). Try these links:

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Fixing Broken Relationships

This is a derivative of my recent post on how to create a bad marriage. As I shared, my counseling practice has been very heavy on breaking and broken marriages. The hurt and pain involved is awful. It makes me sad to see it. And any married person knows there are constant struggles. Marriage is like driving a car on the side of a mountain. It seems we frequently look out the window and say, "wow I am pretty close to a really bad crash!" It helps to keep the eye on the road and stay focused, but even so there are moments which are a close call.

In addition, any relationship can suffer the strains of damage and destruction. One huge contributor is the fit. There are a variety of ways that people are "wired" and, in my experience, sometimes people just don't line up. Some of it may be our faults, but some of it is really out of our control. We have different wants and needs, different styles of being, different ways of communicating, different values. Conflicts are more common when the fit is not good, because a bad fit takes lots of work and it is easy to transgress. Thata is harder to fix. But there is some hope!

So how then to reconcile? I call it "The Second List Solution." That should be the title of the book I am not writing (but you can get this trimmed down version for free!). In troubled (and not so troubled) relationships everyone has The List. Some are more aware and conscious of it. Others call it up without realizing what they do. It is related to #4 on my list. It is titled "His/Her faults."

In conflict we all have that list of accusations. Individuals have it. Groups have it. Nations have it. It is a collection of all the slights, sins, mistakes, errors, screw-ups, intentional or not, that the other person has done. Every world conflict is rife with The List of Accusations. The Jews and Arabs in the Middle East have one. The Catholics and Protestants in Ireland do, too. The Christians and Muslims have them in many places, as do Muslims and Hindus in India/Pakistan. Democrats and Republicans have them, and Conservatives and Liberals. Believers and Unbelievers have them. And any person in a troubled relationship has one.

The accusations follow a simple form:
YOU did this, and it was bad.
You did that, and it was bad.
You did this, and that, and that, and this, and this and this and this.
Usually the list is full of this's and thats which we have explained should not happen.
I told you not to and you still did it.
I asked you to please stop and you didn't.

Now some of our accusations are inaccurate, unfair and do not belong.
However, in general, most are legitimate and some are are downright grievous.
Humans can and do awful, terrible things. And everyone may be guilty, but some are more guilty than others.

But the list of accusations can never really bridge the gap. The Accuser may be right about every single accusation, but accusing alone will not work. It takes "The Other List" to end conflict and provide the opportunity for peace. And what you ask is the other list?

Until we face our own mistakes, missteps, errors, unkindness, sins, selfishness and evil there can be no reconiliation.
Until we admit what we  have done wrong and really reflect on how we have harmed the other, there is no hope.
Until we can face the damage we have done, and not minimize it or ignore it, all we do is blame.
Until we ponder on the hurt we cause, and care deeply for the wounds we have inflicted, are inflicting and will continue to inflict--- well until we love and care about someone else the way we love, care and tune into our own selves---until empathy and compassion take root; there is no hope to move on.

Confession is out of vogue except among alcoholics in a particular treatment process. Protestants reject the idea. Catholics have it as a sacrament but only a small percentage actually do it. People say, "I can go to God myself" but are not skilled in a true examination of conscience. Face it, we don't want to see it and it is really hard work to look and find it in ourselves. Besided, the list of accusation keeps us plenty busy already. Who has time to admit to being a perpetrator when we are focused on being a victim?

Accusations are easy to create.
Confession and true sorrow and actual repentance is tough. It is hard work, and it hurts and it goes against our natural inclinations.

We feel our pain, but we do not feel the pain we cause. It is easy, therefore, to focus on our pain and be oblivious to the wounds we create.

But in counseling, the people who focus on their own list of mistakes, who acknowledge what "I" am doing wrong and asking for help to change, those are the ones who save, rebuild and prosper in relationships.

The problem is always "you"; but it is also always "Me." and Me is the only one I control.
Here is what I did wrong, Here is the harm I have done. Here is what I contributed to make the mess.
I did wrong, I hurt you, and I am sorry....
That is the list which makes reconciliation possible, but it takes two. Otherwise one side's confessions just become an addendum to the other side's accusations. Perhaps that is why we are reluctant.

Anyhow, it is certainly why we need a Savior. We can't be sorry for sins which we are blind to. And I am blind and so are you. I pray a Spirit of Reconciliation and peace upon our nations and each person within them. I hope this is of help!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Tolerance, inclusion and lepers

I am aware of several questions which were asked and a couple of requests made during my absence. Without trying to sound whiney, my schedule since I got back has been full and I am not able to address those right now. However, I plan to in the near future. Thanks for caring what I write about (and for the occassional complement!).

Yesterday I was reading and praying over Leviticus 13. It is a hard section because it is all about lepers and what to do with them. In our culture, where we very much value tolerating differences and including everyone, the idea of exclusion for a skin malady just sounds wrong. Now, as I have been told, I am not the most inclusive, tolerant guy. I am and have been a "rules" guy since birth. I am not politcally correct and I do not think truth should be denied to be nice. However, I also detest hurting people and really do want to find a way to make everyone happy. [yes, this is why I am a mess emotionally so often: seeking conflicting goods...]

So I am reading about lepers and thinking. This seems kind of mean. It certainly seems unfair. How would someone feel if they were identified as a leper. I imagined people trying to hide or cover the patch of skin with its tell tale characteristics. What horror they would feel and how devastating it must have  been.

Now a side note. Lepers in the OT are NOT what we think of as lepers. Leprosy, or Hansen's Disease, did not exist in the area of Israel until much later. Some think Alexander the Great brought it with his armies from India. So it probably refers to more common skin maladies. Also, the Bible does not report how widespread the disease was. Were there a few dozen people in all the land with this? Was it 20% or 30%. We just do not know. So, what sounds like an awful practice may have been more theory than lived experience. Just look at some of the current laws on our books. Many are simply not enforced so that must be factored into how we feel and what we think about them.

The deeper question is about the purpose of the law. It does not say that leprosy is a punishment from God, nor does it equate it with a moral disorder. Lepers are not called bad people. They are called 'impure' or 'unclean.' That is something I alluded to recently in my post on Holiness. It is hard to get our heads around some ancient ideas, and the Bible is ancient. It does not mean they are wrong and we are right. We have simply redefined terms and created different contexts for understanding reality. Probably germs and hygiene are what we mean by 'impure' or 'unucelan.' Sometimes our cultuiral expectations cross the line into absurdity. Looking unkempt or dirty may not be biologically dangerous and clean and neat folks could be covered in life threatening microbes. We make assumptions and categorize like the ancients. Dirty people are often treated with contempt.

The key in Leviticus is right worship. It is also about  having a 'fit' community. The Lord is "worth-y" (the actual root of the word worship is worth). We must take seriously that implies demands on us. Too often we assume everyone and everything is okay. As a boy growing up in the Roman tradition, we often said, "God does not care what we wear, He cares about us." While true, what it also meant was, "I am wearing a tee shirt and jeans because it is comfortable." I did, however, notice that we tended to dress up for other events. And while a person in casual clothes can worship, it is also true that the style of dress reflects an attitude. If God is worth-y then it might be helpful to dress in a way that respects Him more than the "god of comfort."

Back to the text. Expelling lepers from the community is a harsh thing. It is also a reminder that we, the people, have a standard. I am not advocating skin condition as the basis of this decision. [teenagers don't want to come any how, we let pimples be their way out?] However, I do think that "spiritual" leprosy is an issue. The state of our "soul" matters and when churches are full of people who give as little heed to the inner state as they do to the physical perfection rule, then churches are failing to provide fit worship. Perhaps, follwoing the practice of ancient Christians, we should understand the deeper meaning of the text allegorically or spititually. The real meaning of the text and the real message revealed from God is not the literal, but the analogical. Lepers=Unclean hearts. [this is reflected in prophetic texts and in other parts of the Torah, too.]

One last word on Jesus. I am not trying to be argumentative, but I grow weary of the "progressive" Christian constantly harping on Jesus accepted lepers. This then is the foundation for "tolerance and all things inclusive." In a word, this is pure poppycock. Jesus DID NOT accept lepers. He never said, "Hey the Law is wrong. God messed up. Don't obey it." What Jesus did was heal them. He healed them and then provided them access to the temple so they could be reinstated into the community. There is a difference. Jesus did things which supported the Jewish status quo and no where in the NT is leprosy declared "fine and dandy." Now, Jesus also touched them and welcomed them to receive the healing. He broke cultural taboos by His behavior. I get that. But He did not deny the law. He followed it. He was able to heal so He did. That is, He made plain, why He came. He takes on our sins and maladies. He sozo (The Greek verb means both save and heal!) those in need. So an inclusive church is one which recognizes sin is sin and calls people to repentance. Acceptance is the foundation for conversion. Inclusion in the community is the means to reconcile sinners and heal the wounded. It is how we go about the task of becoming "fit" and offering true, worth-y worship.

This topice deserves a much more in depth treatment, but blogs are not ideal for such a thing. I hope this short reflection leads you to ponder what is God saying in Leviticus 13 and in asking I pray you are able to listen, to hear, to understand. Be humble before your God!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Five Keys to an Unhappy Marriage

This is based on some reflections I shared with the young couple who married each other last weekend. The setting was outdoors and many of the guests were under twenty-five (statistically a group in which 15%attend church; though a bit higher in the South). Not an ideal place to do an extensive exegetical homily or a sermon filled with complex ideas and subtle arguments.

I am a priest-pastor and do an extraordinary amount of counseling compared to most priests I know. I see many couples, most of which are in dire circumstances. In many cases, the 'marriage therapy' is too little, too late. By the time they get to talking with me at least one, if not both, of them has decided that they are through. As such, I am probably not an expert on a good marriage. I am, however, very familar with bad marriages.

Statistics say one half of marriages fail. I have heard that self-identified Christians might have a slighter higher rate than the average. As bleak as that sounds, there is some better news if you investigate more deeply. The success rate of a first marriage is higher than 50%. People in second and third marriages tend to have higher divorce rates. So the overall rate is bloated by multiple marriages. In addition, when the researcher unpacks the word "Christian" they find nominal Christians have a higher rate than dedicated ones. That was some consolation. My "advice" (which is offered tongue in cheek) is based on my expertise working with failing marriages.

One upside of a bad marriage is when your spouse dies instead of experiencing searing pain and deep loss, there is a sense of relief. It is a mourning preventative.

There are many ways to create a bad marriage. My list is not exhaustive nor is it intended to be. However, based on these five things you can be assured that your marriage is on the way to the trash heap.

#1 Keep God out of the picture. No Jesus in your life keeps the focus on you. Do not pray together, do not read Scripture and never talk about your relationship with the Creator. Being worshippers makes us humble, being obedient makes us selfless, and making the Lord the center of our life means we move ourselves to the periphery. Faith and repentance change our hearts. Those things are deadly for a bad marriage. The key is making marriage about "us" and then quickly defining "us" in terms of "me." The Lord's revelation and the church's teaching on marriage are not tailored to my personal wants and desires. With that in mind, avoid church, those places are notorious for emphasizing our duties to God and our fellow humans. Keep the focus on "me, me, me" and keep God out of  the picture.

#2 Never Apologize. Never. Especially if you are wrong. Apologies lead to reconciliation, a grave danger to a bad marriage. Assume you are right. If you are not sure argue louder. Never underestimate how refusing to admit you are wrong, even about little things, can suck the life out of your partner. Related to not apologizing is the third principle.

#3 Never forgive. Forgiveness is the gateway to apologies. Carry a grudge and mull over every single injury. You deserve to be treated like a prince/princess. Your spouse should be at your beck and call and do what you want, when you want, the way you want. Any failure should be pondered and remembered. And the more sincere the apology, the more strongly you must state "no forgiveness." As an extra bonus, tell your spouse that their motives for apologizing are suspect and the sincerity of their apology is questionable. And the final flourish is the reminder, "I don't want apologies, I want you to stop messing up!!!"

#4 No one is perfect (except you) and being married provides multiple opportunities to discover faults and failings in your spouse. Pay attention. Take note. Work hard to memorize every single flaw and identify anything in which your spouse is lacking. Having committed the list to memory, articulate those things on a regular basis. It is best to point out mistakes in public. Every spouse loves to be interrupted and corrected, preferably two or three times in the midst of a story. And make sure you make corrections on minor details. "No, not Tuesday morning, Wednesday morning." "It isn't thirty minutes away, it is more like twenty-five." "That wasn't five years ago, it was almost six." You get the picture. Betray your spouses confidence by publicly displaying their flaws and weaknesses. And one last thing, a flaw includes anything about which you differ. Personal preferences can easily be reframed as moral inadequacies.

#5 Miscommunication, poor communication, no communication and yelling are key. Keep your spouse guessing. If you are mad, never bring it up when they ask "are you okay?" Wait for a couple of days, late at night or five minutes before they are leaving for work and then let them have it. Nothing creates a better environment for an argument than poor timing. If you are upset, give them the silent treatment. When asked, "is somthing wrong" respond with a terse "everything is fine." Build up the tension. Leave out important details and spring stuff on your spouse at the last second. Get mad when s/he comes home at 5:00 and rant and rave that "we are supposed to eat dinner with my parents at 5:30!" when s/he had no idea that this was in the plan. Loud, angry voices are a perfect complement to the brooding silent treatment. Escalating into saying the worst possible things you can always makes for a bad marriage!

Now, each marriage has its own special features, each person has their own special needs and all of us can find inventive ways to make our own relationships hell on earth. But these five are the regular components of every bad marriage I have dealt with. In marriage counseling, no one comes to me to confess their own sins and failings; it is always about blame. "I am not perfect," followed by "but s/he....." is the beginning of the blame game. In the end, counseling is based on what your spouse needs to change. Your job is to cling to unforgiveness, and, of course, never apologizing, never listening, never showing affection, and keeping God far away and your own wants and desires front and center. Good marriages are hard work, bad marriages  come more easily. In fact, many of the major components of a bad marriage come quite naturally with little effort. It is a goal which is easy to attain and the consequences create not only personal misery but hurt and pain to a wide range of other people.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Got a message that someone called today wondering what had happened and where I was. As the caller pointed out, I usually inform when I will be out. And I do. And this time I didn't. I cannot tell you  how wonderful it is to have someone call the church to make sure I am okay.

I was in Johnson City this weekend, at the other end of Tennessee. 499.6 miles. That was some driving. We left Thursday after my Bible study (me, mom, and baby) and arrived at 1:00 am the next morning. It was a wonderful time with wonderful people.

I want to share my thoughts on marriage tomorrow. For now I want to briefly reflect on something off beat. All three of us suffered from sinus issues this past week. And it made me aware of how fragile we humans are. If I feel bad I am usually not worth much and I found that was true for my baby as well. Life on planet earth is not paradise. And I live in a 'bubble' of affluence which provides me with all manner of things which make my journey easier.

500 miles in ten hours. We stopped to eat. There was no threat of death from the elements. No exhaustion or fatigue. Just sit and drive. Amazing. And a phone call away from a doctor back home to get medicine prescriptions called in. And medicine makes us feel better.

Lots to be thankful for.

Thursday, August 16, 2012


Reading Leviticus 9 and 10 yesterday. The reading culminates many repetitive chapters concerning the proper way to offer the different kinds of sacrifices (sin-offering, grain offering, peace-offering). Most of my life I have found these chapters to be difficult. They were foreign to my life experience and not terribly interesting to me. (And I am pretty much the final judge on what is interesting and what is not interesting, right?)

The invitation to read Torah yearly (by a Messianic rabbi) has changed much of that. It has also been helpful to purchase a couple of Jewish Torah's which have many good notes. While the Christian reading of the OT (an unveiled approach advocated by St. Paul) emphasizes seeing everything through the lense which is Jesus, there is value in simply reading the story for itself. Men who still see value (dare I say ultimate value) in the text itself provide wonderful insight.

Chapter nine begins on "the eighth day." For seven days Aaron and his sons have prepared for the sacred duty of priesthood. [Of course, the eighth day in Christian thought is the new creation day of resurrection or Easter Sunday. On that day Jesus was established as the Great High Priest in glory after His sacrifice the previous Friday.] The text is clear, this is what YHWH God commands the people to do. A miraculous confirmation of the event occurs when God's glory appears in their midst and then a fire shoots forth and consumes all the sacrifices. God Himself lights the fire. It is a good beginning.

Many times I long for God's mighty acts in our midst. I wish His fire would miraculously ignite things for us. I wonder how we would respond if He were more obvious in His activity among us. Would it matter or would we be constantly looking for the next big thing? At any rate, the day of celebration is short lived. Two of Aaron's sons (Nadab and Abihu) brought forth "unfitting fire." The Hebrew word, zarah, refers to something which is "outside the group." In other words, they did not keep the rubrics. No explanation is given for their choice of this 'outside the acceptable' fire; is it intentional? an error? confusion? directed at another god? What we do know is hundreds of years later, after the civil war and split between Israel and Judah, King Jeroboam has two sons who construct golden calves at sanctuaries in Dan and Beth-el. His sons names are Nadab and Abiyah. Coincidence? Not likely. There is a message here.

Like the sacrifice before ust prior, the two men are consumed by the fire of YHWH. This stern and complete judgment take one off guard. It seems overboard. It appears God is harsh. It does not fit with our image of a loving Father who is long suffering and puts up with anything. Where is the GRACE????

Perhaps the answer is, grace is not the whole story of salvation. Perhaps the point is holiness is dangerous stuff. Perhaps we have not read our CS Lewis where he reminds us, in the Chronicles of Narnia, God is good but He is not tame. The Lord is power and truth and holiness and goodness. When we approach Him in worship we need to do it right. This caused me to ponder my own tendencies to take worship for granted, to let my mind wander, to focus too little attention on praise.

Contemporary worship tends to be congregation focused. We sing songs we like. We create conmfortable conditions which we can enjoy. It is often a concert with a feel good message. Leviticus reminds us that worship is serious business. Perhaps we are lucky. It would be nice to see God's mighty acts, miracles which confirm our faith, but those acts can just as easily be judgment as awesome displays for our edification. I don't want the fire consuming me when I mess up! I want God in a box, contained and safely tucked away like a magic sword for my use. True worship is self emptying. It follows rules set down by God. It recognizes that it is not about me (or us) it is about God. Worship flows out of gratitude. It flows out of understanding. It flows out because it cannot be contained. It is a response to the Holy One.

Richard Friedman says we no longer do a good job of differentiating the holy and the secular. That is probably true. It is the blindness of our age. Every period has things it is good at and things at which it is not good. We ridicule the Middle Ages and Ancients for their errors. It is hard for us to imagine we are making our own. It is hard for us to believe that when it comes to holiness and worship, we just do not get it.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Rights vs. Duties

My last post was a personal reflection on "deserving poor" and a challenge to see ourselves as perhaps less deserving then we might think. It was another angle on the concept of 'grace.' Grace is built into the nature of things. Any relationship is grace. No one can earn love, demand it or expect it. And theologically, it doesn't matter if it is human to human or human to God. People who demand love from another get called things like "stalker" or "psycho." "You owe me" is probably the single worst introduction to any conversation about love.

Because of the nature of this grace, gratitude (which is from the same root) is possible. Gratitude is a spirit of thanksgiving for what one has. We 'return thanks' in response to a 'gift given' (grace). If we all come to a deeper understanding of our blessings (and the graciousness of such blessings) we should also come to a deeper sense of appreciation and gratitude. The problem with an "I want more" culture is it is so hard to be thankful. Consuming everything with a voracious appetite, we tend to stew about what else we want and when we want it. Consumption also destroys the capacity for reflection and meditation, Most spiritual masters do not recommend a full belly when at prayer; meditation and contemplation are best done when the mental senses are not dulled by food.

Our culture is also rights based. We have a long list of what people have a right to. And like all things in a consumer culture, over time those rights seems insuffucient to satisfy so we generate new rights. The right to education. The right to free food at school. The right to babysitters while I am at school. The right to transportation to school. And as each individual finely hones his/her own list of wants and desires at some point the rights overburden the ability to deliver the services to which one "has a right." Rights generate a sense of entitlement. We see it regularly. People decide what they want and they let you know that is exactly what you are going to give them. Usually punctuated with an expletive to make it crystal clear.

The endless list of demands under the heading of 'my rights' can become wearisome. When someone walks in the door, demands $500 for their rent and then rants to me "that is what churches are for," they have made a serious error. Actually two serious errors. They made an errror in reason. The purpose of a church is to worship God and to grow in discipleship. Charity is a fruit of the worship and growth.  The second error is thinking I am going to be moved to give them money because they yell at me.

To my knowledge only the government has the capacity to create entities which have the purpose of giving stuff away. And that is because they can take people's money from them by force. In response to the government largess with tax money, others have spoken out about their rights to 'keep what is theirs.' I admit to being partial to such arguments, probably a funciton of my own personality. (Maybe because I am doing well?) I have an inborm discomfort with people taking from other people for their own benefit, and that is what politicians are able to do. However, I admit the constant grousing of the well off about how much they pay in taxes is also wearisome. My understanding of math is decent. So if yo say you are paying more taxes than a hundred people, based on my computations, I figure you are making more that that same group of a hundred people. On the other hand, if half the people pay nothing at all...well you see where it ends up going. And while people ususally succeed because they are busting their humps it is also true that we benefit from the hump busting of others. We are in it together.

I am not a political person. I am a religion person, more particularly, a frequent though imperfect disciple of Jesus. Jesus was not big on rights. Such talk was foreign to His culture. It is no surprise He would not go there. However, it may well be that it was also because He live in a God focused culture. In a God focused culture one does not have rights. God gives us duties. Lots and lots of duties. So while no one has a right to walk up to me and demand I help them, God has told me that I have a duty to others.

Duties are given to me. If there is such a thing as a right, it is derived from those duties. My guess is the duty list needs to be the one we focus on. In a consumer culture duties are hard to remember. They are rarely consumption. But it is, to my mind, the only hope.

Are you poor? You have a duty to do all you can to correct the situation. And you have a duty to be greatful for anything you get. And you have a duty to take as little as you need. And you have a duty to make your society a better place in any way you can. You have duties above and beyond your own wants and needs.

Are you rich? You have a duty to create the possibility of others to become rich. You have a duty to use your blessings as a source of blessings for others. You have a duty to make your society a better place in any way you can. You havfe duties above and beyond your own wants and needs.

This does not solve the problems we face. Obviously, there is no bridging some divides. But I do think it a helpful place to reflect. Duties vs. Rights. Yes, I think we are better off focusing on our duties.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Challenge of Helping the Undeserving

Today, as on so many days past, someone arrived in need of help. What is one to do? Most of the folks who show up at our door are probably on the take at some level or other. Many are no doubt up against it and in a tight spot. Few of them have resources (time, talent, treasure or relationships) and most have ridden a series of bad choices, bad luck and bad consequences to a point where things always hang precariously in the balance. The decision to help is complicated and the time needed to do thorough checks is a commodity in even shorter supply than the cash to help. So I pray and hope and try to "smell" the truth when I cannot clearly see or hear it. I figure it is better to be tricked than it is to send away someone in real need. Yet, some folks clearly aren't deserving. Good stewardship requires that we do not throw money away, if for no other reason than an innocent in true need may be deprived later down the line. It always weighs on the heart and mind.

I was pondering this the other day when someone shared his life situation. "Father," he began, "I am burdened with the responsibility of providing round the clock care to someone whom I think does not deserve what he gets..."

"Each morning, at the crack of dawn, I must rouse him from the bed. Then I run to the kitchen and make him breakfast. I feed him then clean up the dishes. Next I have to bathe him. Each and every day. I also shave, brush his teeth and otherwise deal with his hygiene needs. After all this I take him to the car and do whatever tasks are needed. Work is a means to get the finances to see to his wants, needs and wishes. At night we replay the same scenario with meals, cleaning and taking care of his bodily needs. It is my job to wipe up all his messes and some wiping is less pleasant than others. At night I tuck him into bed and then I collapse into a deep, exhausted sleep, my last thoughts being that tomorrow is more of the same...."

What he says next is more to the point. "He is not a bad man, he is just not terribly greatful. He seems to think that when things go his way that is how it is supposed to be. He rarely thinks about how genuinely blessed he is and how terribly fortunate. He grouses about minor details and is not above whining. He is more likely to point out what he doesn't like than to say thanks for what he does. Many of his health problems are a direct result of his own choices. Most of his relational difficulties are as well. In fact, you can directly tie over half of the things  he complains about to choices he has made. While reluctant to take responsibility, he is adept at placing blame. He is especially talented at projecting his faults onto others. So each day, as I do the myriad tasks to make his more pleasant and enjoyable, I am keenly aware of how undeserving he really is."

After a moment of silence I asked, "Who is it you care for? Your father? A sibling? family friend?" I could not help but wonder at what would motivate such devotion to someone who was also seen as unworthy. He paused briefly, looked me in the eye, smiled and said one word, "Me." "What?" I stammered, confused for a moment. "Me. It's me. I am taking care of myself all day and truth be told I am rarely worthy of all I receive." A moment of clarity, (sort of like Nathan saying to David, "you are the man!") followed by laughter.

At the heart of the Christian faith, if not dead center level 1 no more than level 2, is the teaching that those who have received great blessings and forgiveness must in turn pour out great blessings and forgiveness. There is an organic unity between grace and graciousness, being blessed and being a blessing. My little illustration is a parable, a made up conversation based on a real conversation at our prayer group Saturday. It is, I hope, a window into the truth. Who is worthy? The Lamb that was slain, He and He alone is worthy. You and I? Not so much. It is all a gift (even if we have worked ourselves hard to achieve some things). It is all a gift. We need to challenge others to be better, but the challenge is best articulated by our actions and our own integrity. We are all messed up. We are all undeserving. We are all the blessed recipeints of grace upon grace. Keep that in mind, especially next time someone asks for help.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Darkness of Faith

Catholics out of communion with Rome have few options for their church affiliation. Some "off brand" types do exist but they are not easily found and some tend toward fringe ideology. The Orthodox faith is generally appealing, but also exotic. There is often an ethnic flavor to their self understanding and cultural barriers some of us find difficult to transcend. In additon, in most places, there are few congregations to visit. For English speakers, the Anglican tradition, more specifically in this country, the Episcopal Church, has provided a haven for those who are looking for a home. That is still true, but only for a new, 'progressive' catholicism which often negates much of the historic faith. So it can be lonely and wearisome at times. This day to day battle raises the question, "where is the joy?"

When one is a baptised believer, seeking to know, love and serve the Lord in obedient discipleship, the way is clear. Love Jesus. Trust Jesus. Follow Jesus. But the clarity soon disappears amidst a thousand competing voices, each one trumpeting that it is the authentic voice of Christianity. Broad statements are made, like "only the Bible,"  which one finds little reason with which to quibble. "Why yes, undoubtedly, only the Bible, the sole source of revelation and our authority!," we enthusiastically declare. And we know that we are in good company (the communion of saints) who have long harbored this belief and were radiant lights in their own ages and our own. And then one begins to read, to study, to pray over Scripture and a wondrous experience occurs. One begins to peel away at the text and encounter the living God. There is a Source from which these texts flow. It is invigorating and exciting. And over time you have an experience like I did yesterday. I was reflecting on something I had read the day before by a Christian Jew, troubled that his local priest had said the Jews do not need to convert because they have the covenant already. He was very upset by this and advocated evangelism. I think it is more complex a question than some who quote Paul (here and there) let on. The authority of Scripture runs smack dab into the limitations of the Old Testament. It is not easy to discern which texts are in and which are out, which are relevant and which are tossed in the ash heap of history. There are different approaches to the problem (one is to reduce them to infallible history texts, making the issue of error about facts and not truth), the most popular among the majority of Christians is simply to ignore them. I study them too much to ignore them and know them well enough to understand why some would think the covenant is forever, mainly because it says so, again and again and again and again.... However, in the end, the central place of Jesus is not negotiable for Christians. Church leaders who say "Jesus is our way but not the way" are clearly in error and should resign their positions. In my pondering I remembered that there is no name given for salvation except that of Jesus. So, even if I my thinking is a bit murky on the edges, at center is Jesus and that is the foundation for all that follows.

Several hours later at Morning Prayer, during the first reading from Acts, I heard those very words read in the church. No other name given for salvation but Jesus. No other name, only Jesus. Lately I do not seem emotionally connected. In days gone by, however, that "coincidence" (or God sighting) would have filled me with wonder and energy. My emotional response, or lack there of aside, the confirmation of my reflection was clear. I may be wrong about a lot of things, but I am right about Jesus. Him and Him alone, His Name only for health and salvation. Even for Jews, especially for Jews; and Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Agnostics, pagans and all other manner of folk as well.

However, the lack of fervor I felt was troubling. I wondered if something were wrong with me. I wondered if my faith is amiss. And then I went about my day. It was similar to other days this week, filled with counseling. I hear stories, every day, of incredible pain and suffering. Bad marriages, health and financial woes, confusion and questions, some of if generates doubts about God and the unbearable Silence of the Divine. More and more I recall a book I read in seminary by a Japanese Christian. It was set in Japan in a time of severe persecution and recounted the faith struggles of a priest facing torture and death. The title was Silence. It was not the success Gospel preached around Memphis. It was not about the victory of God and the power of  the Spirit sweeping away all adversaries. It was not about a Christian football team getting a game winning field goal aided by a wind from God. It was about a man who would deny the faith to avoid suffering only to return later and ask readmittance and a priest wondering what to do with him. It was about that same suffering priest who struggled, under threat of violence, with the question of why God is silent.

There are answers, of course, sometimes being provided by those uninvolved in the struggle those answers seem cold and distant. If God is at work among us why so much division and confusion about theology? Why so many different and conflicting points of view? Why not a smaller Bible, more focused and clear, setting out in bullet points the main thing? Why not clarity? Why, so often, silence?

My answer. Being a disciple is carrying a cross. [and cross carrying, by the way, is not fun] It is walking in the darkness of faith trusting in the Light ["I believe in the sun, even when it isn't shining" goes the old hymn]. It is walking in darkness, buffeted and challenged, aware that on our own there is so much sin and failure. It is walking in the darkness, hungry for a real love, deeper peace, all encompassing joy--hungry and thirsty and longing and crying out, "Come Lord Jesus!" It is walking in the darkness, watching and waiting, with, at times, the slimmest of hopes because out there, on the horizon, piercing the darkness, we see the first shards of the New Sun/Son Rise. Yes, it is there, not yet, not completely, but soon. And this hope and expectation sustains, by God's grace, until the consummation. It is light in the dark, a whisper in the silence, a hope in the struggle.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Is God's Wrath on America?

Is it true that God's wrath is coming on America because it is rejecting traditional marrige?  I guess the question is really a couple of dozen questions. Let's look briefly only at a couple of them.

First of all, what is wrath? Even the Biblical concept seems to be muti-valent. In places, God punishes directly: fire from heaven, the earth opening and swallowing a clan, that sort of thing. In other places, God punishes directly but it is in and through some natural means: foreign invasion, drought, famine and disease. This second type requires discernment. Are all droughts God generated punishment? Natural disaster and war occur in all manner of places and does not always correlate with pious practice. The third type, is God's withdrawal. There are places where God says "I will turn my face" and seems to withdraw His hand of  blessing and protection. This is wrath by subtraction. God says, "Have it your way" and we are left to pay the consequences of this decision. In other places, "God's hand weighs heavy upon" the sinner. There is an experience of God's judgment.

Another question: what would generate God's wrath? Well, some people around these parts would say, "It is in the Bible." And they are right, but the Bible can create some serious confusion, too. People reading the plain meaning of the texts do not always come to a shared and plain conclusion. Christians do not agree on what OT laws are relevant and which aren't. One classic funny, to me, is when people say, "Follow the ten commandments." The sabbath rest is not part of most people's lives (and certainly not as described in Torah). The Ten Commandemnts as a concept is great, it is the practical keeping that is the challenge. The ceremonial vs. moral laws gets even trickier. Some condemned practices are advocated by us today, including the most conservative Christian.

One other question (there are more I have not raised) is about the relationship of our nation with God. America is not in covenant with God. There was an appeal to Biblical imagery in our early years, in large part because the educated person would be well versed in Bible. Even if many were not religious men or even Christian, they still were grounded in the Word. In light of that, America as the Promised Land grew in popularity and it is reflected in the American sense of being special and different. We know that God punished nations in OT but it is not clear what that would look like now. Nor is it clear how God sees this relationship.

A final question, can wrath co-exist with love in the heart of God? I think that is easy: yes. One concern is properly defining love. It is not just affection, or a warm mushing feeling, or anything-goes-turn-a-blind-eye-to-human-sin permissiveness. Love is unconditional but relationships are not. I think this is part of the confusion with the word grace, especially in a post-Reformation, consumerist culture like ours. It is hard to get our minds wrapped around the concept. Love is God's sel-emptying, but without a reciprocal gift of self there can be no relationship. As much as it appeasls, there are no solo's in life. Some things are more important than others, but the less important still matters. There are expectations and demands. There are consequences for choices.

I believe the revelation of God is clear. There is a cost for sin. We can call it wrath, punishment, natural consequences, fruit or any of a number of other things. We can understand God's actions as direct, indirect, in and through, withdrawal or a number of other ways. We can wonder how love and wrath co-exist and ponder it. We can construct all manner of amazing (and not so amazing) theological systems. What we cannot do is completely explain it nor can we reject it. Perhaps an analogy from real life will help. I love my kids more than I love any other kids on the planet. Who will I most intensely scrutinize and most harshly correct? My own. It is an analogy, but it seems to square with something fundamental. Love is the opposite of indifference and when one cares that caring impacts how one behaves. Even God (to the extent we understand anything about divine activity) seems to behave this way.

So I believe in wrath. I expect judgment on a society at large. I think judgment works in myriad ways. I do not think it is quick (it can take generations in the Bible stories). I do not think it is always obvious. My job is to remind people that sin produces wrath.I am not a prophet like Isaiah so I cannot fill in all the finer details. I do not have to identify a particular group or singular behavior as the cause of it. Nor do I have to identify exactly what events constitute judgment. I have a distorted view of things (as do you). The things which we believe will bring down God's wrath may not be God's main concern. I take solace knowing the Lord God sits in the Judge's chair. I do not need to worry about things which are not in my control, especially things too big for me to comprehend.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

new creation

I believe Genesis is vital for our world view. It is interesting that the first two chapters provide us with parallel accounts of creation. While there are some stunning differences there is also a remarkable complementary relationship. We live in a scientific age, even if most of us are scientifically illiterate. We still are programed to think in particular ways. We have 'assumptions' about how things work. The place of religion in the modern context has been somewhat caricatured in the  "Secular Liberal" vs. "Literalist Fundamentalist" debates. I wish I knew more about ancient beliefs and assumptions. The more I study Scripture in a historical context the more aware I am of subtle nuances and differences in assumptions.

One example is Noah's ark. There are hundreds of such stories around the world. There were also numerous myths (A loaded word) with which ancient Israel was well acquainted. That is the context for hearing the story of Noah (and not our modern debates on evolution or age of the earth). Stories are about meaning. History for its own sake is a modern idea. Modern history is about (in a good sense) 'gossip' i.e. finding out information about other people's lives. The purpose of history is to find out what happened. The utility of history is to learn lessons from what goes before.

In my Torah studies just finished Exodus and started Leviticus. In chapter 31 we hear the story of Bezalel. The text goes on and on about his wisdom, understood as practical skills in construction. He is tasked, by God, to build everything related to worship. His name, "in the shadow of God" has a root connected to "in the image of God" (Hebrew words build off roots in ways English doesn't--this is why puns are so central to the ancient text). He is filled with the spirit of God (Gen 1:2; 2:7). Construction of the Tabernacle models God's creation of the world. The purpose of the Tabernacle is to have a sacred space, which completes the initial concern with sacred time (the Sabbath).

This is further expanded in Leviticus. God calls to Moses and tells him, "A human ('adam) from you will make an offering to YHWH." Even in English this sort of sounds odd. However, in the next reference the word is "a person" (nefesh) and then later it is "man" ('ish). Not reading in Hebrew or paying attention to such details, this would all escape me. However, the commentary provides this insight. These words occur in the same order in Genesis, making a connection between the texts. [They do not have footnotes] The connection between God creating humans and humans offering sacrifice to God is reciprocal. And foundational. And part of the (re-)new creation. Such subtlties are much more helpful than discussions about dinosaurs. It is probably closer to the actual revelation of God to us.

Worship is sacrifice. In Jesus, the NT system is not repetition of sacrifice but liturgical participation in Christ's cross. In this act we say, "here I am God, do with me as you see fit." The holy meal, Bread and Wine are also Body and Blood (a mystery). It is done in sacred time in a sacred place. It frees us from the limits of a secular mind and gives us much more than a wooden literalism. Fear not, God is.... I pray this day you will enter the holy of holies and worship your God.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

So Now What?

In my counseling sessions this week there was a recurring theme: "What should I do?" One of the predominant motivations for people seeking counsel is the need to address a situation or solve a problem. In many cases, there is no readily available solution. If life were easy we would not need counselors. As a semi-objective outsider (i.e. not emotionally sucked into the situation) I am able to analyze from a distance. However, because I am a 'high feelings" person, I am keenly aware of the emotional content of the situations. Those in tricky situations sometimes need to just talk it out, to hear themselves. It is funny how often just doing that talking can reveal the solution. Sometimes, a third party can echo back and make connections for the person in 'crisis' (actually a Greek word which means a time of decision or judgment).

My advice is usually to determine what outcome you are seeking. {If I know what you want I can tell you what I think you should do!] In general, that is the most common source of trouble that I see in people. We have not clarified our goals, or we have a multitude of semi-articulated conflicting goals. We want to save our cake for later and eat it right now (while losing a few pounds!). And the failure to sit down and do the analysis and decision making can add to all the iternal conflict. It is called S-T-R-E-S-S....

If life is a journey (which obviously I believe it is) then the choices we make have an impact on where we end up. Obviously, circumstances change things. We are not in control of a great deal of our lifes. Plans get waylaid constantly, so you need to be flexible and have Plan B (and C, D & F). Like the woman gymnist, sometimes our foot is two inches off the beam and we tumble. In one brief moment our shot at the Gold is gone. How then do we regroup and find meaning?

Some of us are planners by nature. We walk around with a 'to do' list in our head and a pretty solid sense of goals and objectives. Others struggle are overwhelmed by options, unsure of their desires, unwilling to choose or commit to the choice. For either type it can be difficult. Each has its benefits and each has its problems. There is no one right way to approach everything all  the time.

"So now what?" Think about whatever it is. Decide what you want. Figure out what you should do. Decide what resources will make it possible to achieve your goal. Consider some alternatives in the event you fail or it is not possible. Perhaps the biggest dilemma is God. How do I think the world came to be? Why am I here? For what purpose? What have the wise people thought in the past? What have the fools chased after? Are my beliefs and assumtions reasonable? Are they true?

Personally I have chosen to disciple after Jesus. Well pretty much. Most of my life is still under other authority (Sin). Are there problems with my faith? Yes. Lots of questions. Lots of confusion. But I also think that is the way it is supposed to be. There is a huge 'future' component to being a Christian: "Watch and Wait and Stop Fearing" are the primary NT commands. It has already started but it is not here yet. In the meantime it is a struggle. There is darkness mixed with life. Death is apparently more powerful than life. Sometimes it seems 'no good deed goes unpunished.' And we can't seem to break out of the old bad habits and personal vices. I think trusting Jesus means I have hope that better days are coming. That means that deciding "now what?" has a built-in security. God provides (though in His own way).

Friday, August 3, 2012

Empathy, Kindness and the Cross

I know that writing on topics related to homosexuality peaks interest. Over the two years, my readership is usually 50% higher whenever I touch that subject. Until yesterday, my most popular writing had been about the impossibility to be an "up-to-date" church. It was passed around in many circles and I still think it is the most important thing I have said to my church. Yesterday 350+ people read my blog, about three times the normal "great day." There is interest in this....

My biggest concern with the Chick-fil-A controversy is how Christians react. Note I say, react not respond. Yesterday I wrote about the general acceptance of divorce and remarriage among Christians, even conservative ones. I briefly mentioned a few reasons why. Today I want to add another. Most of us can imagine ourselves getting divorced (and many of us are). I counsel a lot and marriage dissolution is terribly painful. People do not enjoy it. They are not proud of it. It was not a goal when they got married. We can connect with their pain because we know our own relationships are rocky. Most all married folk have had a time (probably many times) when packing the bags and heading out seemed the only possible solution. So we see divorced people with empathy.

On the other hand, in the general population, the overwhelming majority cannot imagine themselves in a same-sex relationship. We cannot even imagine how it would be possible. Why would someone feel such feelings? It is also repulsive to some people. Seeing two men kiss creates a reaction in many folks. It is not because of hatred either. (Though that reaction may be a seedbed for hatred) As I see it, in this culture war here is the turning point.

Roughly 1 or 2 in 100 people identify as homosexual. Apparently, another group of the same size has had experiences of same sex behavior. In some social setting, for example incarcerated groups, it appears that number can climb to 1 in 10. So we know a small percent of the population has these desires or is willing to act in this way.

Most (it seems) of these people accept their situation. Many embrace it and, in recent days, embrace it loudly and boldly. Most of them have had some, perhaps numerous, experiences of mistreatment (verbally and even physically). Seeing someone get beat up (figuratively or literally) is hard for most of us. It triggers an emotional reaction. We want the abuse to stop. So a chunk of our society views homosexuals to be a persecuted minority in need of acceptance and support. They have decided that anyone who is not on board with this is full of hate and prejudice. They can then  pick from the multitude of examples of this hate and prejudice provided by all manner of people. Let's be honest, much of that is also found among Christians. (Who, like all people, are shaped as much by their personal culture and personality as they are the Bible.) Advocating for homosexual rights morphs in some cases into an aggressive form of advocacy, often accompanied by threats. It is the nature of revolutions. After you overthrow the oppressors in the name of justice the 'new idea' people usually engage in the same type of oppressive behaviors when they come into power. In simplest form, the advocates for homosexual people who were denied jobs because of their proclivities now deny jobs to people who are not in agreement with them. This has begun to happen all over the western world and is accelerating.

In reaction to that threat, anger and combativeness increase among the traditional folks. Already incapable of empathy for homosexuals and their supporters, they consider them a threat to their own livelihood. (And that is not an exaggeration. In the Epsicopal Church people like me cannot be hired in many dioceses. I have read about numerous people who lost jobs when they said things like "I am a Catholic (or I believe the Bible rejects it) because they do not believe in gay marriage.

Because there is not much empathy (among same sex proponents) for the traditional believer, it is assumed that people who think marriage is for a man and a woman in covenant together are obviously hateful. It is beyond them that someone would think traditionally because the Bible teaches otherwise and people believe the Bible, and Church tradition teaches otherwise and people trust the wisdom of the church, and that all manner of reasonable arguments (like design) support tradtional thinking. I think one question everyone  needs to ponder is this: If the Bible&Church taught homosexuality was blessed would that make you happy or sad? Personally, it would make me happy. I wish it were different. I am not interested in policing people's personal sexuality (except child abuse and rape and that sort of thing). My personal feelings are toward live and let live. However, I also know that some of that is generated by my own awareness of sin in my life. Face it, I have to answer for me and I do not want to judge you. The problem is I have studied for years and I cannot see any way to avoid the conclusion I have come to(it is a sin). On the other hand, how many advocates for same sex marriage can honestly say they do so reluctantly but 'have to" because the Bible/Church teaching forces them to adopt that position? (Dang few, if any)

I believe homosexuals should be allowed to get married. However, the definition of marriage is "one man, one woman in covenant (before God)." In light of that, my belief is homosexuals do not want to get married because they are not interested in that sort of relationship. I understand (deeply) the need and desire for relationship. I can feel empathy for homosexuals (I had my own long and painful struggle with forced celibacy). I can treat them kindly and respectfully. I can also tell them it is wrong to destroy the meaning of the word marriage and redefine it as they see fit. I can also point out that logically once that happens then everyone can redefine marriage as they see fit. And I can say (from personal experience, obervation, and the study of history and social sciences) that all people are broken and all people are inclined to change things to justify their own behaviors. As such I can and should boldly advocate for traditional marriage.

So what about the culture wars on marriage? First of all, as I said on facebook, Jesus tells us to take the log out of our own eye then worry about the speck in someone elses. Second, in a war (which this is, like it or not) there are usually a small number of enthusiasts. The vast majority find themselves forced to decide by the conflict.Some ten years ago I was forced to take a public stand in my church. The cost in emotional pain, isolation and loss has  been substantial. In debates I can be tough. I said a few hurtful things. I heard plenty back. SO I know it is really hard to do this well. We are split on this issue with few avenues for compromise. Trends indicate a growing acceptance. However, trends change over time (see my article on being 'contemporary'). It is just as likely that in fifty years people will be shocked that it was considered as they are shocked it was opposed. And in the end, popular opinion is not "truth." (Most of the supporters of same sex marriage also think premarital sex and living together is okay. Hardly a justification for claiming the Holy Spirit is at work) What I also know is we need to be self aware. We need to understand the rational and emotional motivations which drive us.

We live in a world with a vast variety of beliefs. Can we believe strongly, advocate openly and boldly yet also listen and respect others? Can a liberal allow a conservative a place at the table? Can a conservative provide the same hospitality? Not on every issue, certainly, but are we trying to find a way to live together? The Anglican church is founded on the desire to gather people in common worship. It is better than religious wars and burning folks at the stake. The problem is, we all have our bundle of kindling and matches near at hand. All of us, each in our own way. And dialogue is too frequently a cover for people buying time to get what they want done. I know. I have seen it. This is a dilemma!

My option is to prepare to meet my Maker. I try to live with integrity but try to avoid unneeded confrontation. And once confronted, to fight the good fight but not lose my soul in the process. The measure of a Christian is his/her embrace of the Cross. The Bible defines victory differently: faithful suffering for love of God and our fellow humans. I am on the conservative side of this debate so my criticism is as an insider. Too many conservative Christians think of victory in earthly terms. They see winning the war as vanquishing the enemy and demonizing enemies as the work of faith. We are more than happy to sing the praises of Jesus crucified, but not too interested in joining him. [This is not new, 1200 years ago when Clovis heard preaching on Jesus he said that if he and his warriors were around that would never have happened. Peter was against the idea too in private to the Lord, just before Jesus called him satan!] We want to win, I know I do. And that is the problem. Winning, at all costs, can become an obsession. I do not expect the Liberals to believe this. Secular Liberals have openly rejected the cross of Jesus. Even Liberal Christians have trouble with the orthodox Christian position. So, as I see it, I (we) am at a disadvantage. I am not allowed to fight like they do. But it is only faith which allows me to hold back. My hope is not winning by overwhelming the other, it is waiting on the Lord and being faithful. In Christianity, martyrdom means dying (as opposed to martyrdom as suicide bombing). This has led me to a painful struggle. I really do not long to be a martyr, at least not enthusiastically. I am not naturally inclined to the Cross! Can I have empathy and kindness for those who would do me harm? Not without Jesus (and even with Him only with great difficulty). So support Chick-fil-A, but do it without rancor or speaking evil. And make sure you don't let others get away with saying unkind things either. Remember the cross and remember Jesus' requirement: pick it up and follow Him. Then and only then are you prepared to enter this culture war as a Christian witness. In the end, that is the only victory worth having.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Chick-fil-A fiasco

My kids love Chick-fil-A. They always have. At parties where a tray of those little chicken bites are laid out, invariably, they disappear more quickly than most any other available food. I do not go there much on my own. I am not sure much of the menu is helpful for doing anything with my middle aged chubby frame. However, such decisions have now taken on a new twist. Apparently, the decision to eat/not eat there makes one a soldier in the culture wars. It is not about food and nutrition, it is about gay marriage....

As most of you know, the founder of Chik-fil A was interviewed recently on the gay marriage issue. What he said was not shocking. He is a conservative Christian. He believes the Bible the way most conservative Christians do. He thinks marriage is one man and one woman. He also believes that America is under threat of judgment because it has openly rejected God's word on the issue. The response has been ridiculous. And eye opening. Clearly, many angry people think that Christians are not allowed to believe what our faith teaches. That has me very concerned.

Marriage, until the last decade, has always meant one man and one woman. There have been outliers advocating multiple partners, but those have usually tried to stay under the radar. Polygamy was known but rarely seen. Except, in growing numbers, for serial polygamy. Serial polygamy means that you have multiple spouses, you just spread them out one at a time. For people my age, the most famous practioners of serial polygamy have been movie stars. We seemed to focus on the ladies more, Elizabeth Taylor and Doris Day come to mind.They sometimes had five, six even seven husbands (or wives). I would have more respect for conservatives who warned us that God's punishment will fall on America because we have abandoned monogamy. But part of that is a function of how humans tend to operate. Many of our friends and family are divorced and remarried. Lots of us have divorced parents. Also, we know things. We know why some marriages fail and we have compassion. The OT provides for divorce (though Jesus says that Moses did this because we have hard hearts). Even the NT has Jesus (for sexual sin) and Paul (for unbelief) provide loop holes for the no remarriage message; so perhaps that has played a part. So it is a bit trickier to talk about (and we are not big on nuance when we talk in this culture!).

The decision to boycott Chick-fil-A was a fiasco. It created a counter response which led to long lines out the doors of this fast food mainstay. I think research indicates that conservative Christians really like fried chicken (at least it is implied by some articles I have read). One criticism is we are too fat. Well, now there is a moral imperative to eat more chicken--to do so is a support of traditional beliefs and free speech. From what I see and here, yesterday's sales were through the roof. Tons of people went to eat as a way to say, "we support traditional marriage." That is awesome, but sad. This intensifies the divisions and conflicts. It leads people to get angry and confrontative. And gay people and Christians suffer verbal abuse and are demonized based on the desire to eat some lunch.

In Chicago, my birthplace and one of my favorite cities, the mayor said that Chick-fil-A values are not Chicago values. Seriously? A city known for political corruption? A city whose current murder rate is astronomical? A city of such diversity in culture and religion that literally anything and everything can be found somewhere? Chicago, all three million of  her, has no room for a guy to sell (delicious) chicken because he does not believe in same sex marriage? Chicago, a city with a huge Roman Catholic (i.e., traditional marriage) population is certainly a city where Chick-fil-A's values are present. Why do I care? Because if a city can ban someone from making a living because they believe in traditional marriage what has it come to? Will pro-life stance mean social exile? Will the belief in the Bible be criminalized?

I am a traditional marriage kind of guy working in a church which is off the charts pro-gay, pro-anything not traditional. I have sat with the "tolerance" folks and heard them spew their venom against anyone who does not match up with their "love and kindness and tolerance" perspective.... I also know that some conservatives hate gay people. I have made it clear, gay-hating is not welcome and will not be allowed in my parish. But, for some on the Left, anything short of advocating gay marriage (a misnomer by the way) is hate. And that is the problem. They leave no room for any opinion but their own.

I think God's judgment is coming. On my list of reasons gay stuff is pretty far down. I think materialism, consumerism, a lack of a spirit of true worship and disobedience is a function of self-centeredness. In my hearing, conservatives are no less likely to engage in this than Liberals. So Chick-fil-A owners will prosper in conservative areas and suffer losses (and apparently large numbers of homo-sexual kissing on their properties) in other areas. Lots of noise and too much evil (in the name of the cause). Lots of noise and too much self righteousness. Lots of noise and finger pointing. And that will draw God's wrath.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


I prayed over the texts for Morning Prayer today. The first was the beginning of Acts. Luke's introduction is a nice summary of what and why we believe. One line always gives me pause: "After His suffering He presented Himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking to them about the Kingdom of God." Herein lies, in pretty naked terms, the reason for our hope.

Ironically, the second reading was from the passion of Matthew (27:45-54). Although there we also hear of resurrection events to come, even as Jesus hangs dying. The Gospel text includes the line, "My God, my God, why have Thou forsaken me?" That jumped out at me because this morning as I walked the dog I found myself pondering abandonment. I know it personally and certainly hear regularly from people who find themselves in all manner of "forsakeness." While there is truth to such bromides as "If God is not near you who moved?" and "God only appears to be gone, He is there" (and I read footprints in the sand years ago and get that He is carrying us when we feel alone) it also seems true that sometimes we feel alone. Terribly alone.

It is a difficult balancing act between the twins pillars of denial. On the one hand, real life hurts are real. Sometimes people talk like they do not matter. There is a sense of 'being in denial' as they spout their pious platitudes. "God is in control, it will all work out!!!!!" On the other hand, there is the worse option of "denial of the Lord." It is tempting to forget He is in control. It is tempting to give up hope.

The juxtaposition of crucified Lord and risen Lord are the two poles of our faith. Life is hard. Sometimes God does seem far away (and classical Christian spirituality indicates that maybe I moved--sin--but perhaps God moved--dark night of the spirit/purification). It is also just a plain fact that this side of the Kingdom Come there is an absence of God. (Remember He doesn't walk with us in the Garden since the forbidden fruit mishap) I think that many people struggle in their faith. I do too much counseling to ignore that. I think God is at work in the times of abandonment. Arguably, the abandonment of Jesus on the cross was a key element of its saving significance. And, as Paul says, we must die a death like His if we want to share in His resurrection. (Most churches do NOT make that the major focus)

I believe the resurrection hope is a future hope. I do not know exactly what it means here and now. At times it seems to be strength, but just as often it is weakness and tears. Christianity does not scoop anyone up and shelter them from the realities of every day life. It never has. Why else would Paul be constantly taking the early churches to the woodshed for one error or another? There was never a Golden Age when people got it right. And the apostles certainly messed up reguarly.

If you are struggling, feeling like God is far away, you are not alone. Many of us live like that. But it doesn't mean we are alone and it doesn't mean God has failed. Now is the time of the cross. Now is the time of struggle, and yes, feelings of abandonment. But it is also a time to peer ahead, into a better future. It is good to keep resurrection in our memory. Suffering and struggle are not wasted and are not in vain. There is a God, lurking and preparing a new Kingdom and a better life.