Friday, March 30, 2012

How is God loving you?

Lenten Meditation  30 March 2012

            “The Incarnation of God, in Jesus, gives us the living ‘icon of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1:15) who is the template for all else (1:16), who reconciles all things to himself (1:17), who is the headmaster in a cosmic body that follows after him (1:18).”  (Page 198)

Peter Abelard 1079 -1142. James E. Kiefer
            Peter Abelard, one of the early proponents of the Scholastic Method of dialectic, is best known for his treatise Sic et Non, translated “Yes and No” or “Yea and Nay”.  Sometimes touted as the founder of the University of Paris, Abelard contended throughout his life with Church authorities because of his approach to theological inquiry.  Although never condemned by papal writ, his writings were discredited in his native France by councils convened by archbishops in France and by his intellectual opponents, primarily Bernard of Clairvaux.  Abelard is also linked eternally with Heloise, his lover from youth, about whom he wrote in great detail.  Their love story is classic tragedy, with each retiring to the life of a religious order, Abelard to a variety of monasteries and Heloise to the convent of the Paraclete.

            Abelard’s contribution to the understanding of Atonement theology was not to propose a thorough going theory of how Jesus’ death somehow satisfied the need for payment for sin. Rather he challenged the earlier understanding that Satan was owed the purchase price for all humanity, as well as the newer, Medieval concept that God was the one to whom the debt was owed.  If Satan truly held humanity captive then God was not in charge; if God was in charge and required a blood sacrifice for payment for sin then God is not free to forgive.

            Part of our problem, even into the 21st century, is that we want to create God in our own image.  We look at justice from our own perspective and declare that there must be quid pro quo (we would say tit for tat) exaction to bring the scales of justice into balance, and we posit that God must have the same justice needs.  The Old Testament concept of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life is deeply embedded in our psyche.  Interestingly enough, in reading Jewish scholars’ comments on the eye-for-eye passages, I discovered that for the most part, precise eye for eye payment was rarely carried out; normally the consequence was payment for the worth of an eye, a tooth, a life.  The difficulty is that if I poke out your eye, even accidentally, and my eye is poked out by your brother, then your brother has transgressed against me and my son gets to poke out his eye, and so on.  Or as Gandhi is reputed to have said, “An eye for an eye, and pretty soon the whole world is blind.”

            My difficulty with most of what I hear proclaimed concerning Jesus’ sacrifice has to do with what is called “substitutionary atonement” theology.  That argument presupposes that justice or salvation is only possible when the scales of justice are in balance.  When I sin, a price must be paid to buy me out of the bondage in which sin has imprisoned me.  Unfortunately, I was born into sin (Original Sin), and I have no ability to pay the ransom or purchase price to release me from that captivity.  Someone else must pay the price, but all other human beings, me included, are trapped in sin as well, and none has the means to pay even for my sin, let alone their own.  Except one—Jesus, the sinless one.  He takes my sin and the sins of the whole world and bears them to the Cross, substituting Himself for me in His brutal Passion and Death on Calvary, paying either Satan (early Church) or God (medieval to modern) the ransom for my soul.  However, in order for me to come under the list of those ransomed, I must pray a prayer of acceptance of Jesus’ redeeming work.  I must declare my own depravity and complete unworthiness through sin and then accept the loosing of my bonds by a loving Savior.

“The trouble is that we emphasized paying a cosmic debt more than communicating a credible love, which is the utterly central issue.  The Cross became more an image of a Divine transaction than an image of human transformation.

            “We ended up with a God who appears—at least unconsciously—to be vindictive, violent and petty, not at all free, subject to supposed laws of offended justice—and a Son who is mainly sent to solve a problem instead of revealing the heart of God. … sin becomes the very motive for redemption instead of love, and the very central act of the redemption of the world appears to be based on an act of violence!”  (Page 199)

            Rohr goes on to say, “Divine love is not determined by the worthiness of the object but by the goodness of the subject.”

            As we move toward Holy Week, beginning on Palm Sunday with the reading of the Passion according to St. Mark, I hope you will look with new eyes on the story of God’s love in the saving work of Jesus, not just on the Cross, but in all His life, His death, resurrection, ascension, and coming again in the Holy Spirit.  If it will help review John 3:16-17 which says, “16)  For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son to the end that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life. 17) Indeed, God did not send the Son to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  (NRSV)

            Tomorrow let’s look at the love of God as the motivating factor for reconciliation between humanity and God and between individuals and groups.  Love only grows when it is given away; like the manna in the wilderness, love shrivels and rots when hoarded.  How is God loving you today?

Thursday, March 29, 2012


Lenten Meditation  29 March 2012

            “Jesus is, in effect saying, “This is how evil is transformed into good.  I am going to take the worst thing and turn it into the best thing, so you will never be victimized, destroyed or helpless again!  I am giving you the victory over death!”  (Page 188)

The Resurrection of Christ (1611-12) by Rubens

            Atonement is probably the only theological concept which has its roots in the English language rather than Greek or Latin.  At-one-ment is the Middle English way of speaking about reconciliation or recovery of relationship; theologically this is a way of speaking of the reconciliation between God and humanity through the saving work of Christ, especially Christ on the Cross.

            Before the high Middle Ages, some theologians, including Irenaeus and Origin and Augustine, understood that the “sacrifice of Christ” was a necessary payment of debt for the sins of the world, not unlike modern theologians, but in payment to the Satan to buy humanity out of the control of evil.  In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the beginning of Scholasticism, several competing theological understandings arose.  St. Anselm posited that the debt or sacrifice was to be paid not to Satan but to God in satisfaction for the debt owed for sin.  Peter Abelard, on the other hand, argued that the only reason for the Incarnation, Passion and death of Christ was to show visibly the complete love of God for creation.  John Duns Scotus, a Franciscan, argued that the redemptive work was clearly shown in Jesus’ life death and resurrection, but raised the questions of the precise nature of redemption and challenged the metaphors of debt and payment price.

            To grossly compact history, Anselm, Abelard, Duns Scotus and others debated understandings of Atonement for centuries without a condemnation for any of these positions.  In the sixteenth century, with the rise of the reformation theologians, both Protestant and Roman Catholic theology accepted St Anselm’s position and rejected all other understandings of Atonement.

            Modern Christian theology has in some ways taken in its entirety the theology of Atonement of Anselm—the understanding that a debt must be paid, a blood sacrifice is essential in order for reconciliation to be effected between God and humanity.  Whether Anselm himself understood God to be an angry, blood-thirsty, distant deity, needing to be assuaged by the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, unfortunately this image of God has become the major icon of contemporary Christianity for non-believers.  Of course, those words are not used, but by inference it is not only possible but one is likely to arrive at such an understanding.  In fact, I have heard those who reject Christianity use the argument, “How can I believe in a God who requires the blood of his son to appease his anger?”  The incredibly popular movie of 2004, The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson, is a graphic depiction of the brutal death of Jesus with only a hint of Resurrection, portraying what has come to be called substitutionary Atonement, which grows completely out of Anselm’s theology.  The substitution is, of course, that Jesus paid the debt you have incurred by your sin, the debt putting you out of the reach of grace and the love of God.  The movie was presented as a way to draw people to Christ, but from conversations and experience all it did was appeal to the basest level of human desire to see gore and suffering, not unlike travelers who stop to gawk at a wreck on the highway.  The movie did not swell the ranks of seekers or church goers; it only made money for the producers and distributors of movies.

            Tomorrow I will look more in depth at the theology of Peter Abelard and how it, I believe, is much closer to the biblical understanding of God’s love which flows out of both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.  Certainly both understandings of atonement theology are accepted by Episcopalians and Anglicans.  My hope is that this conversation will open up a deeper insight into God’s grace, love, and mercy for all of us in order that we might be able to articulate why our faith is so dear to us.  In other words, I am hoping that those who read these essays have the words to “proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ” as our Baptismal Covenant challenges us.

(This essay relies on both Rohr’s book Things Hidden, Scripture as Spirituality and the Catholic Encyclopedia available on line.)

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Threat and fear versus love

Lenten Meditation  28 March 2012

            “Threat and fear is not transformation.”  (Page 173)

The Harrowing of Hell, Netherlandish,, Nasher Museum of Art

            When I arrived to register as a student at Nashotah House in August 1971, Sheila and I and our son Trey had obtained an apartment in nearby Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, as there was no housing available on campus for additional married students.  However, married students, both those who lived off campus and those who lived in the “flats,” were assigned a study room in the Cloister which had been originally designed for single students.  My study room was in a suite in “B House” on the back side facing the lake.  The suite was three rooms, two small bedrooms and a common room with toilet facilities adjacent to the suite.  When I arrived to arrange my room, I discovered that there were two other students with whom I would share the suite.  Because I arrived first I chose one of the bedrooms believing that the common room would be busier with comings and goings, and my supposition later proved to be correct. 

            In my study room were a bed, a small book shelf, and a desk and chair; to say the room was full would be an understatement.  I immediately noticed a poster on the wall that had been left by a student who had previously used “my” room.  When I first saw the poster, I stood and stared at it for some time, and decided it had to remain.  The poster said:  “Because you have shouted someone into silence doesn’t mean you have converted them!”  I do not remember if there was an attribution or citation for the quotation, but I knew that that was to be my theme for theological study.  In the fall of the next year, one of my roommates and I decided to stay together but requested that we move to the “front” side B House, and we were granted our request.  As I made the move, taking my accumulated books and other student “stuff”, I took the poster and taped it to the wall in my new “digs” where it stayed for the next two years.  I left the poster for a successor student, never knowing where it had come from originally or whether he would either keep or dispose of it.  (Nashotah was almost totally male in those days.)

            Having grown up in Oklahoma, “the buckle of the Bible Belt,” (I know other parts of the Old South claim that attribution also) I was aware of the evangelistic methods of fear and threat.  I never understood why anyone would be drawn to a religion that constantly berated its members with threats of eternal condemnation for any minuscule misdeed.  The God of Love that I was hearing about at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Chickasha did not sound like the same wrathful, angry God that my friends who attended some of the other churches in town were telling me about from their faith perspective.  The Rev. Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” was alive and well and being preached in paraphrase weekly in the 1950s and 60s in Chickasha, Oklahoma.  

            What amazed me even more than an image of an angry God was the way in which my classmates professed this God but acted like the rest of us 99% of the time.  Dancing for many of my classmates was a dreadful sin with dire consequences; the jaws of Hell were gaping wide to devour sinners who danced or went parking or stayed out late.  But I believe almost everybody in my class was present for Friday night “sock hops” in the high school gym.  I had a long conversation with a friend from one of those churches that preached fear and threat, and I asked him about the incongruity of belief and action.  Neither he nor others with whom I has similar conversations could give me an answer except to say that this was a way to try to keep people “in line.”

            Years after I graduated from high school I began to speak of fear and threat evangelism as “spiritual fire insurance.”  Over the centuries, Christians took the images of Heaven and Hell, union with God and separation from God and gave them geographical locations.  The deliciousness of torment—for others, of course—reached its pinnacle in Dante’s Inferno.  Few read beyond Inferno to find Purgatorio truly cleansing and fewer to discover in Paradiso the culmination of Christian unity with God.  Some writers and preachers have even attempted to locate within earthly parameters the sites of both Heaven and Hell.  Christian Scripture describes hell using Gehenna, Jerusalem’s burning garbage dump, as its primary image.  Heaven is always “above” as would have been understood by our predecessors who thought of creation in a three tier universe.

            For me, the most unfortunate aspect of a theology of fear and threat is that the work of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is horribly skewed.  That perspective makes Jesus the appeaser of an angry God who desires – no, demands - human sacrifice.  The only difference between that understanding and that of a multitude of other ancient religions is that Jesus is the only sacrifice, whereas the others required periodical, sometimes frequent offerings of human blood, sometimes enemies, sometimes their own children.  The basic understanding, however, is the same: God’s ravenous anger must be fed with human blood.  It is little wonder that many in our post-Christian era have no interest for themselves in a God who demands human sacrifice, even the sacrifice of Jesus.

            Tomorrow and for the rest of the week, I am going to focus my essays on what is called Atonement theories, or what the Cross is all about.  If you want to read ahead, Chapter Nine of Things Hidden, Scripture as Spirituality is all about Atonement.  We Western Christians have a particular doctrine of Atonement which I believe feeds into the threat and fear theology.  How can that understanding be changed?  Tune in tomorrow; same time, same station.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

God loves you

Lenten Meditation  27 March 2012
            “God does not love you because you are good, God loves you because God is good.”  (Page 164)

Michelangelo painting of God, Sistine Chapel, the Vatican, Rome

            All of us, I believe, have devised some sort of what Father Rohr calls “meritocracy” in order to determine the parameters of worthiness for receiving God’s love, mercy, and grace.  We may speak of Grace as a free expression of God’s munificence, but deep down in our heart of hearts we have a built-in need to limit God’s reach either for ourselves or for someone else.   Even though we profess theologically that salvation—the greatest gift of Grace—cannot be earned, we hedge that tenet by fairly innocuous conditions which become, in fact, steps to earning or proving that we have earned our place in heaven.  We must pray a certain prayer, we must have a certain attitude, we must do something to prove to God that we are worthy of receiving God’s love.

            I am not willing to go quite so far as to proclaim a universalist salvation, but at the same time, it is not our place to decide who goes to heaven and who descends into hell, which is shorthand for speaking of who is saved and who is condemned.  American Christians, Protestant and Catholic, are quick to damn those who are different, whether by culture or race or economic status, to the fiery furnace of the nether world; we determine by our own particular criteria who is “in” and who is “out.”  And yet our Lord Jesus cautions us “Judge not (condemn not) lest you be judged.”

            We are told in Genesis 1:27, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  (NRSV)  Throughout history, human beings have used this passage to work backward from human to divine to ideate what God either is like or looks like, since we are created in God’s image.  As a small child growing up, I saw in my Sunday school room a drawing of God as what I now see as a Zeus-like figure sitting on a large stone throne with a very long beard and a stern expression.  Many of my generation and older saw this same picture or a similar one, and that child-like image continues into our adulthood.  There were other pictures in that class room including Jesus who looked very northern European smiling as he receives children, Noah’s ark receiving the animals two-by-two, and Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden with a very large snake lurking in the background.  In a subtle way each of these pictures helped craft my early image of God in whose image and likeness I was created.  Children are absolutely concrete in their thinking and cannot imagine God as Spirit, as formless, as anything other than humanoid.  But then adults tend to have this same trait, which is why we project onto God our facial features as well as our very human tendencies to pettiness and jealousy and very conditional love.

            What is it to be created in the image and likeness of God?  I will not try to rehearse what theologians through the ages have posited, but I will give you my own condensed version, which is at the core of my own theology.  God is both creative and loving; beyond that is conjecture.  Genesis 1 and 2 proclaim God’s creative nature as foundational; God creates “ex nihilo” out of nothing by calling forth creation, “And God said…and it was…”  God speaks and it is.  In Genesis 3 we see God as lover not when all is wonderful, before the temptation as God walks through the garden in the cool of the day, but when First Man and First Woman have defied the command against eating of the fruit of a particular tree.  There are consequences for their actions—removal from Eden, pain of childbirth for woman, hard work for man, bodily death, eating dust for the serpent—but God clothes the pair and gives them food for their sustenance.  The remainder of Scripture, often called Salvation history, is God’s continuous calling of humanity back into relationship with God because of God’s love for creation.  We see that love in the patriarch saga, in Moses as he leads the Hebrews out of Egypt as well as the giving of the Law, in the prophetic calls to holiness, in sending God’s Son Jesus, in the Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost event, and in the continuing care for proclaiming God’s love to ALL people.

            In other words, we who are created in the image and likeness of God are called to be creative and loving toward all creation.  No, we cannot create “out of nothing,” but we all have a creative bent in some area, some talent, some gift that fashions beauty for all to see.  More important is the gift of love which burns in our hearts to be shared with another person and community.  We are not fully human when we are alone; we only begin to become complete in relationship as we share ourselves and the love God has infused into our very being.  There is an old adage that love only grows when it is given away, a characteristic, I believe of being created in God’s likeness.

            God does not love you only when you are good; God loves you because it is God’s nature to love you.  Nothing you have ever done or ever will do will cause God to cease from loving you—or anyone else.  That is who God is—a lover.  The sooner we get in our heads and hearts that God loves us, the sooner we will begin to act like God and begin to love all those God loves.  Repeating the quotation above just might be the start of a new perspective:  “God does not love you because you are good; God loves you because God is good.”

Monday, March 26, 2012

Divine Unmerited Generosity

Lenten Meditation 26 March 2012

            “At this point I want to name what I think is the central positive theme of the Bible.  It is the Divine Unmerited Generosity that is everywhere available, totally given, usually undetected as such, and often even undesired.  It is called grace….”  (Page 155)

Reflection of a cross, Executive Council, Fort Worth;  Katie Sherrod photo

            There was a parishioner in St. Michaels’ Norman who when asked how he was would reply, “Better than I deserve.”  Pat Mayes was the first person I heard use this phrase, but not the last.  Many years later, I heard a radio talk show host, Dave Ramsey, use the same expression.  Dave’s program is a call-in show during which Dave tries to help individuals who are loaded down with debt escape the cycle of credit overload.  ” Those who had taken his course “Financial Peace University” and unburdened themselves would phone in and declare, usually with a loud shout, that they were “debt free!”

            In the spirit of Pat Mayes I, on occasion, use what I call Pat’s reply, “Better than I deserve,” and sometimes add, “That’s why it’s called grace.”  Most of the time when someone asks, “How are you?” they really do not want to know; asking someone how they are is merely a polite form of greeting.  If you don’t believe me, next time you are asked how you are, try answering with a full detailed explanation of your physical, mental, and spiritual health inventory and watch the asker begin to recoil and move away as quickly as possible.  I use Pat’s reply with my own addition both as a simple addition and a witness to God’s abundance.

            Perhaps scarcity thinking is part of our DNA, embedded in our cells from ancient history when daily survival was absolutely uncertain.  Long before human beings began to cultivate crops and store up food for future fallow times, hunter-gatherers had to spend most of their daylight hours searching for prey for protein and natural crops for roughage and carbohydrates.  Today might be secure for our ancestors if meat and grains could be found, but who knows about tomorrow.  The fear of starvation was an ever present reality, and a sense of scarcity could mean the difference between life and death.

            Unfortunately, the “scarcity gene” still infects us today.  In the richest country history has ever known, Americans live with a sense of never having enough: enough food, enough “stuff,” enough money.  Part of the reason Dave Ramsey will always have a job is that we Americans, besides always wanting more, are impatient and want more stuff now, so we charge more stuff on our credit cards, pushing us deeper in debt and in some cases unable to purchase the real needs for sustenance.  Even those living in the US on welfare have a higher monthly income than much of the world’s annual income.  And yet we, as a culture, want more.

            Also, unfortunately, we Church leaders do not do a sufficient job of educating our communities that God’s grace is more abundant than we can ever imagine.  We continue to try to put limits on who can receive Grace, and even more ridiculously, we try to limit the amount of Grace available to any individual or group.  We see that in Jesus’ ministry when the disciples come to Him complaining that others are healing in Jesus’ name.  Our Lord’s reply is to tell his followers that those others are doing good work and to rejoice.  Apparently God’s Grace will be diminished for me if someone else has an abundant share of Grace.

            In the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, we are moving to change our focus from scarcity to abundance in every area of life.  That, in fact, may be the most difficult shift for us to make, even much more complicated than reorganizing our structure from a top-down pyramid of power to a circle of shared authority and responsibility.  At our diocesan convention in November 2010, our new diocesan treasurer, Bob Hicks, challenged us to live our lives out of a theology of abundance.  Now that was a breath-taking moment; a treasurer who calls us to live out of abundance!  Periodically I hear Bob challenge the Executive Council, the leadership team, parish vestries, and individuals to live abundantly.  Most of the time he is speaking of finances, but Bob’s entire life has become centered on this one revelation:  God is overwhelmingly generous!

            Jesus calls us to live out of God’s abundance in this way:  “Therefore, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear….Instead strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”  (Luke 12:22-31 NRSV)

            As we approach Holy Week, I encourage you to meditate on the theme of “Divine Unmerited Generosity” which is the best news we can ever receive.  It takes a lifetime to internalize that concept, so begin today to live into God’s abundance and repeat to yourself again and again, “Better than I deserve.”

Friday, March 23, 2012

Children of wrath

Lenten Meditation  23 March 2012

            “They imagine that they are fearing and hating for something holy and noble like God, religion, truth, morality, their children or love of country.  It takes away all guilt, and one can even think of oneself as representing the moral high ground or being responsible and prudent, as a result.”  (Page 135)

            I received a note concerning my essay of yesterday, asking if I were un-American or even anti-American.  For those of you who do not know, I am a loyal American who votes in almost every election, pays taxes, occasionally writes my congressman, supports the freedoms outlined in the Bill of Rights, and even served this country as a member of the US Marine Corps during the Vietnam War era.  I was never sent to Nam, but I was trained to do what Marines do. 

            From the mid-1960s until about 1975 there was a conflict that raged on the American continent concerning the war in Southeast Asia.  Those who were in uniform were not supported generally by US citizens.  At best, there was a neutral attitude by most of this country; at worst, active duty soldiers, sailors and Marines in uniform were spit upon and chastised for being murderers and pillagers.  Events like Mei Li certainly didn’t help to dispel the mind-set of those who were thoroughly anti-military.  There were no welcome home parades or assemblies for those returning from “in country” duty.  On the other side, we had folk like the Rev. Carl McIntyre who marched in Washington D.C. with signs that said, “Kill a Commie for Christ”,  “My country, right or wrong”,  “America.  Love it or leave it”.  There was no room for those who might question the morality of our action in SE Asia (the war for years included Laos and Cambodia and not just Vietnam) and yet be supportive of the men and women who put their lives on hold and on the line for their country.  Many of my friends still have difficulty with their decisions while serving what they thought was the greater good of the country. 

            “War is hell,” said General Sherman during the American Civil War.  It was then, and it is now.  Christian theology has striven for centuries to first define and then understand and apply what has come to be known as a “just war theory.”  Exactly when and under what circumstances can we justify violence?  Is it to protect one’s own life or the life of a family member?  One’s property? The property of a neighbor? Whenever I feel threatened in any way?  These questions are currently being debated in legislative arenas when discussing “Make my Day” laws, and especially in the press when someone acts violently toward an intruder and then is or is not prosecuted under existing law.

            Is retaliation justifiable?  If you slap me, may I slap back with my hand? With a hammer? With a .45 semi-automatic pistol?  With “shock and awe”?  Where do we draw the line?  How do we protect the security and safety of our country, our way of life?  What is our responsibility to those who cannot protect themselves, or do we have any duty toward them?  What do we do with bullies and terrorists?  Should we release Charles Manson or John Wayne Gacey, or those who perpetrated 9/11 or the Oklahoma City bombing?  Or someone who preys on children for sexual gratification?  Where do we place capital punishment in our list of justifiable actions of violence?  Is it even unpatriotic to ask these questions?  More questions than answers, for sure, but questions that must be wrestled with before the fact and not after the fact (of violence of any kind).

            Unfortunately, there is a growing segment of our culture that looks at religion as being the perpetrators of war, or at least the reason for most wars.  It is not always different cultures or races at war, such as Christians and Muslims.  The Middle East wars of Sunnis versus Shii’ites provide us with enormous insight into how “might makes right” works.  And also unfortunately, Christians have through the last 2000 years battled against one another with the most war-like demeanor, justifying the killing of other Christians with impunity.  In recent decades, one need only look at Northern Ireland to see Protestants and Catholics murdering one another in the name of God.  Sounds an awfully lot like Cain and Abel to me.  Either my God is better than your god, or God loves me more than you because you are a heretic or apostate or infidel.  I do not believe this is what our Lord Jesus wants for creation.

            I spoke yesterday of the phrase “children of wrath” that we find in Ephesians 2.  St. Paul tells his hearers that we have been called out of that state into a life of faith and trust in God.  The Apostle’s words are more of a vision statement than reality, a hope for what we can become rather than who we are now.  This discussion challenges me to explore how I justify any violence, my own or others.  I just might discover that the justification devolves between the lesser of two evils, which leads me to pray for forgiveness for myself and for those against whom I act or justify the acts of others.  Jesus calls us to love our enemies and to love those who persecute us.  That may be the most difficult commandment of all, especially in our culture of violence and abuse.  Pray for our country.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Disguise for evil

Lenten Meditation  22 March 2012

            “Scapegoating or sacralized violence is the best possible disguise for evil. … We all choose “apparent goods” inside of our own unrecognized frame of reference.  Your violence is always bad and evil.  Mine is always necessary and good.”  (Page 135)

Il Tintoretto: Cain and Abel 
            There is something about human nature that needs to exhibit or express violence.  It must be in our DNA, likely as a survival instinct from the dim past when all of life was dangerous and survival unlikely.  “Only the strong survive,” is an adage I grew up with and one that operates daily in American culture.  Violence needn’t always have a bloody victim as with Cain and Abel; that is to say, violence can be emotional or spiritual to affect the desired abuse on the one to which it is directed.  In recent months we have seen in news reports the effect of cyberspace bullying on vulnerable children and teenagers, resulting in suicide.  But physical violence is also perpetrated widely within families, by groups against other groups (gangs against gangs), by countries against countries.  Within the past 70 years we have attained the ability to end all life on planet Earth, with the possible exception of cockroaches, through nuclear destruction.

            My heritage is that of a bellicose people, the Scots, who, when they were not focused on killing as many Englishmen as they could, centered their fighting against one another in clan wars, and even at times sub-clan battles for dominance and power.  Knowing my lineage helps me to understand how I respond, or at least am drawn to respond, when challenged.  Most of the time I am able to control my responses in a learned behavior that manages to keep me from “over reacting” to situations that might become very nasty, either verbally or physically without  choosing to subdue the violent streak. 

            Last night I watched a program on PBS entitled “What females want…And what males will do.”  The focus was on mating behavior of prairie chickens, a type of monkey related to baboons, lions, and others, studying a variety of  mating rituals seeking to discover how such rituals help perpetuate the species.  In every species studied, the competing males acted in aggressive ways to assert their dominance over other males in order to spread their own DNA.  Human dating rituals do not usually become as aggressive as what I watched on PBS, but occasionally we are not as far from “animal violence” as we would like to think we are.

            Father Rohr has hit on a very important issue:  we can justify our own violence in stunning ways, including theological—God blessed—ways.  We need only look back a little over ten years to 9/11 to see the righteous indignation that immediately arose in our country against anyone of Middle Eastern descent, or individuals who even looked like they were Arabic. 

Fortunately, we did not go to the extremes of the 1940’s internment of all of Japanese heritage, but violence was perpetrated on individuals, groups and houses of worship that was shameful.  “Your violence is always bad and evil.  Mine is always necessary and good.”  We were able to justify wars against Afghanistan and Iraq that have now dragged on for over 10 years, costing thousands of American lives and untold numbers of both enemy soldiers’ and innocent citizens’ lives.  We feared for our survival, so we responded in-kind, violence for violence.  “An eye for an eye…” as I believe it was Gandhi who said, “leaves the whole world blind.”  We easily justified—and continue to justify—our reaction to violence against us, which gives the Afghan's and Pakistanis justification to respond with their violence against us, which demands that we respond against them, and on and on.

            Jesus calls us to a different path:  if someone slaps your right cheek, turn the other cheek.  If someone takes your cloak, give them your shirt also.  Blessed are you when you are reviled and all sorts of evil are spoken wrongly of you.  Need I go on?  The story of Jesus’ last days, relived through the liturgies of Holy Week, draws us into the contradiction of our DNA against our faith perspective.  Jesus, the Son of God, easily could have called down the angelic army to avenge the violence perpetrated against Him but chose not to act quid pro quo, tit for tat, violence to end violence, which is a non sequitor.

            I wrote a couple of days ago about the phrase “children of wrath” that appeared in our Epistle lesson last Sunday in Ephesians 2.  St Paul speaks to us in that passage of how we have been raised up with Jesus out of God’s mercy and not our own doing.  For the rest of Lent, I am setting my heart on responding to any attack, real or imagined, although not likely physical, by seeking to remember that Christ has raised me from the death of violence into the life of mercy and forgiveness, forgiveness both for myself and for all others.  And when I remember the attacks that have been perpetrated against me, I will, with God’s help, forgive those deeds of violence and give them into God’s hands.  I will with God’s help.  I will with God’s help.  I will with God’s help.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A dangerous document

Lenten Meditation  21 March 2012

            “You can prove anything you want from a single verse or passage in the Bible.  It is a dangerous document, as history has shown, and nowhere has this been more true than its continual usage to legitimate hatred, prejudice, violence, killing, punishing and exclusionary systems, even at the highest levels of church.”

Byzantine Icons: The Wedding at Cana (Vladimir Grigorenko) 

            I know of a story of a young seminarian who in homiletics class had used a portion of a verse upon which to construct a sermon.  Apparently the sermon was not bad, but the premise of the sermon was skewed by using only a bit of the verse which did not take the entire passage in context.  The professor, as an instructional lesson, then assigned the student to write a sermon on another partial verse, a portion of the Summary of the Law which in its entirety says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”  (Matthew 22:37-40)  That bit of Scripture on which the student was to preach was: “hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

            That may be an extreme example of misuse of a passage but, frankly, it is not unusual to take a word, a phrase, a verse or a short passage of either Hebrew or Christian Scripture and expand those few words to become the basis of a teaching that separates or isolates individuals or groups and gives permission for prejudice or violence.  For two centuries in the colonies and   later in the United States, slaves were preached at using two or three texts to show how they should be happy with their situation in life and not try to change that system of brutality.  I have read some of those sermons from that time which still exist and I am appalled at the misuse of the totality of the texts.  I believe that most Americans would find abhorrent such preaching today. 

            I have said for years while teaching Bible studies, “We are all selective fundamentalists.”  By which I mean, each one of us has our favorite passages upon which we rely, and we will allow no one to challenge our understanding.  One of my favorite passages is John 2:1-10, the story of the Wedding at Cana, where Jesus changes water into wine, and not just good wine but the very best wine.  Some Christians who reject any use of alcohol have tried to say that the Greek word uinos really means unfermented grape juice.  Others try to argue that the six stone jars were not completely turned into wine, only the dipper taken to the wine steward became wine; the jars still were full of water.  Others argue that Jesus himself would never have tasted wine.  My fundamental understanding of this passage, along with both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, commends the use of wine, both as drink and as symbol of the living God.  Even St. Paul commends a little red wine to help digestion!  Actually, I love the passage for many reasons other than the argument concerning wine/grape juice: the relationship of Jesus and his mother, the “first sign” as John calls the miracles of Jesus, the exploration of at least one of the wedding practices of the first century.  All of this together is a delight to me and enriches my spirit.

            Even a brief history of the Christian Church is the story of how individuals and groups have been persecuted.   It is a dark tale which gives credence to the rants of those who have no use for God or the Church.  In some ways we have been our own worst enemies by perverting the teachings of Jesus to meet our own desires and needs for power and control rather than the needs of the world around us.  Our Lord challenges us to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, and visit the sick and those in prison. (Matthew 25)   However, all too often we have used the poor in our midst to feed our hungers and justified it with a prosperity gospel message of wealth for me and too bad for you.  Your poverty must be your own fault.    

In an earlier chapter, Father Rohr speaks of the “meritocracies, worthiness systems and invariably base them on some kind of purity code—racial, national, sexual, moral or cultural.”  (Page 105)  These systems are not based on Jesus’ life, death, Resurrection, Ascension, much  less the power of the Holy Spirit sent upon the Church at Pentecost.  Rather, we devise ways to insure that we are “in” and “those people”—whoever they may be—are “out.”  What is it about human nature that causes us to think the only way we can be the beloved of God is to have others who are despised by God.  Westboro Baptist Church is a glaring example of such hatred of the other and certainty of their position that they are able to hurl hate-filled invectives at funerals toward grieving families. I suppose it makes them feel superior to put others down, but I also know that Jesus weeps over such misuse of His people.

I encourage you today to reflect on how easy it is to put up barriers between yourself and others, using jokes that demean individuals or groups, subtle inferences, or direct words of dismissal.  It might be good to read the Gospel of Mark, the shortest of the Gospels, and look for how often Jesus connects with the outsider, the outcast of His society, the lepers, the tax collectors, the unclean.  If we are to be Christ in this world, can we do less than our Lord?  And let’s be cautious about how we use Scripture to justify any behavior, good or bad.  We may be skating on thin ice.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Come Holy Spirit

Lenten Meditation  20 March 2012

            “Some Jewish scholars say that the consonants used in the spelling [of the Hebrew name for God YHWH] are the very few that do not allow you to close your mouth around them, or even significantly use your lips or tongue; in fact, they are very likely a brilliant attempt to replicate human breathing: YH on the captured in breath and WH on the offered out breath!  (Stop and literally take a breath on that one!)…God is as available and accessible as our breath itself, and no religion is going to be able to portion that out, control it or say who gets it. 
Is that not the very meaning of Jesus dramatic breathing on them after the Resurrection (John 20:22)?”  (Page 129-30)

Gian Lorenzo Bernini - Dove of the Holy Spirit
            Until the second half of the 20th Century, Western theology had not deeply delved into pneumatology, or the theology of the Holy Spirit.  At the very end of the 19th Century the Holiness Movement which gave rise to the Pentecostal Movement, began to grow across North America and Europe, gradually moving into Latin America and Africa though missionaries of  the Pentecostal Holiness and Assemblies of God Churches.  Those two groups divided into a multitude of other groups that differed on points of theology but which all had as their central focus the indwelling of the Holy Spirit with the exercise of various gifts of the Spirit, especially glossolalia or speaking in tongues. By 1960 even the mainline Christian communities, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, were discovering, or more properly rediscovering, the power of the Holy Spirit for individuals and congregations through the Charismatic Movement.  The Rev. Dennis Bennett may not have been the first Episcopalian who expressed life in the Spirit, but he quickly became the most well-known through his autobiographical work Nine O’clock in the Morning. Suddenly, it seemed, theologians of every stripe were feeling the need to think, pray, converse, and write about the Third Person of the Holy Trinity.

            During the late 1960s, 70s, and 80s, the Charismatic Movement swept through the Episcopal Church and brought both renewed vigor and dissension.  Members who were moved by the Holy Spirit began to exert pressure to move out into the world in a powerful way; while at the same time the requirement of some Charismatics that all speak in tongues brought division and in some cases schism in parishes and dioceses.  Other renewal movements, such as Cursillo, Chiros, Walk to Emmaus, Marriage Encounter and others, began to draw more and more Episcopalians to move from the pew to an understanding of ministry which included prayer every day and not just Sunday.  By the late 1990s, the Charismatic Movement had filtered into the ordinary life of the Episcopal Church so that it is no longer a radical idea to have a group within a parish, or an entire parish, alive with the power of the Holy Spirit, perhaps even with some who speak in tongues.

            From Genesis 1:1 where we hear about the ruach of God [Hebrew for breath, wind, spirit] or Genesis 2:7 where God blows breath into First Man, to St Paul in I Corinthians speaking of the pneuma of God [Greek for breath, wind, spirit] to Revelation, the Holy Spirit is present and working to breathe life into God’s creatures.  That the Church for several hundred years did not stress the working of the Holy Spirit in the life of ordinary Christians could be laid at the feet of power:  that is to say, the Holy Spirit brings a power for personal transformation and exercise of the gifts of the Spirit for ministry that is not easily controlled by the structure of the Church and is often feared by those who control the structure.

            The idea that the name of God, usually written Yahweh in modern works, [in the King James Bible written as Jehovah] is a breath prayer in and of itself is a brand new one for me.  The Hebrew of the Scriptures is written without vowels, so there is no absolutely certain way to know how to either write or pronounce YHWH, the name revealed to Moses on the Mountain of the Burning Bush (Exodus 3), which translates normally to “I am who I am.”  This name is intended to be unpronounceable, and in modern Jewish worship, when the Sacred Tetragrammaton appears it is pronounced “Adonai.”  However, to think of YH as an inspiration—breathing in—and WH as an expiration—breathing out—is inspired and becomes inspiration to me.  Centering Prayer, as taught by Father Thomas Keating and others, has gained many adherents in recent years, and many use a “breath prayer” such as the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”  I sometimes use a breath prayer that I discovered some years ago: “Holy Spirit, breath of God, blow into my life.” 

            We ignore the Holy Spirit to our soul’s peril.  All of our liturgical prayers and many of our collects close with a doxology which includes the Holy Spirit; blessings always are Trinitarian; through St. Paul’s understanding we discover the “fellowship of the Holy Spirit.”  Perhaps it is time to acknowledge in our own private prayers the presence of the Spirit of God and seek a fuller indwelling and empowering for the work we have been called to in our lives.  As we move toward Holy Week, let me encourage you to discover the depths of the Spirit, the breath, the wind that “blows where it wills”.  Breathe deeply of the life, the fellowship, the power of God; then use that power to proclaim the presence of the Lord to the world.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Prayer in action

Lenten Meditation 19 March 2012

            “The entire biblical text would emphasize ‘right relationship’ much more than being intellectually ‘right.’ Some call it orthopraxy or ‘right practice.’  Jesus consistently declares people to be saved or healed who are in right relationship with him, and never grills them on their belief or belonging systems.”  (Page 110)

  •  Saint Francis Sermon to the Birds in the Upper Basilica in Assisi
  •  Giotto di Bondone
  •             I spoke in an earlier essay about being a clerk in a battalion chaplain’s office when I was in the Marine Corps in the mid-1960’s.  One of the Chaplains for whom I worked was an Orthodox Chaplain, specifically a member of the Carpatho-Russian Greek Catholic Orthodox Church of North and South America, although he normally introduced himself as Russian Orthodox.  I learned a great deal from Chaplain Radasky about the Orthodox Church, including iconography, positive and negative understandings (cataphatic and apophatic theology to be exact), liturgical practice, vestments, and the various cultural understandings of Eastern Orthodoxy.  When I hear Episcopalians/Anglicans—and others belonging to Protestant groups—talking about being orthodox, I often get more than a little annoyed.  I have even asked on occasion to which of the Eastern Orthodox Churches they have changed their membership.  Now I understand that I am being a bit exclusivist with my own understanding—dare I say orthodox—but orthodox has become one of the contemporary purity codes against which Father Rohr warns. (p. 105) Modern use of the term orthodoxy generally implies a particular way of interpreting Scripture to separate out those who understand such issues as human sexuality, women’s ordination, atonement, and salvation in what is often termed a “liberal” understanding.  If one can claim orthodoxy for oneself, then anyone who disagrees with any position is obviously “heterodox” or heretic or apostate or any other term that can divide or set them apart as unworthy of relationship.

                My reading of Scripture, both the Hebrew and the Christian Scripture, draws me into relationship with God who is willing to come into my life, not once but repeatedly—dare I say constantly—to draw me into God’s nearer presence and life.  It doesn’t seem to matter what I believe or how I exercise my belief patterns, God continues to call me into a way of living that proclaims to the world the life of Jesus the Christ.  Looking at the Baptismal Covenant, (Book of Common Prayer pages 304-305) our belief system is articulated in the first three questions of belief contained in the Apostles’ Creed (orthodoxy) which is followed with five questions concerning the living out of our beliefs (orthopraxy).  They make up a unity that cannot be separated, even though we sometimes try to emphasize one aspect/question over all the others.  Episcopalians are experts at ignoring the command to “go out into all the world, making disciples…” (Matthew 28:19) and being witnesses “to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)  We are happy being good examples, but please don’t anyone expect me to talk about my faith or how God has worked in my life.  We are more than delighted to tell our friends about a wonderful new restaurant we have found, but we are resistant in speaking to them of the food of Life.  We gush with enthusiasm to friends over a book that has changed a perspective on family life, but will not say a word about how Scripture draws me into deep relationship with God.  We speak readily of how the music on a CD moves me emotionally, but we won’t utter a word about God’s miraculous presence in our lives that sings with life and love.

                For some months, the members of the Standing Committee and the Executive Council have begun their meetings with what is widely known as African Bible Study.  We also as a diocese experienced this method at our diocesan convention in November 2011. For those who are not familiar with this method, it proceeds like this:  if the group is larger than 8-10 the larger group is divided into small groups of 3-4. A chosen portion of Scripture is read by one of the group with discussion answering the question, “What word or phrase stood out for you today?”  After a few minutes the same passage is read again by another member of the small group and the discussion focuses this time on the question, “Where is the Good News?”  Again after a few minutes of discussion, the passage is read a third time by yet another person and the conversation focuses on “What is this passage calling me to do?”  We set the stage for our conversation and deliberation as leaders of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth by centering our gathering time on Scripture, knowing that we are being called by any passage—every passage—to action and not just belief. 

                On Saturday past, at the beginning of the Executive Council meeting in Wichita Falls our passage was the Epistle lesson for Sunday, Ephesians 2:1-10.  There was a phrase that grabbed me that I had never noticed before: “children of wrath”.  (I argued that it had been inserted overnight into Ephesians because it had never registered on my brain.)  I meditated on that phrase for more than just the few minutes of Bible Study on Saturday.  At the discussion of the third question, my action focus was on letting go of my anger, but in the ensuing days I have kept coming back to that phrase.  Yes I need to let go of my own personal anger, but perhaps more importantly, when  I see the wrath exhibited around me I believe now I am challenged to step into the path of wrath and absorb it with God’s love, not following my instincts to react in kind, but praying through the anger until it is defused.

                Rohr’s book carries the title Things Hidden, Scripture as Spirituality.  His understanding of spirituality is not just pious prayer but prayer in action, not surprisingly a thoroughly Franciscan way of living.  It is also the path of Jesus.  He never allows His disciples to remain simply students sitting at His feet; Jesus calls us all into apostolic action, carrying the Good News with us always and proclaiming it constantly.  Or as St. Francis is reputed to have said, “Preach always; use words when necessary.”

    Friday, March 16, 2012

    Concerning pain

    Lenten Meditation 16 March 2012

                “Not that enlightened people must be rejected, but it is true that wounded and rejected people have a much greater chance of seeing clearly and having something to say (they also have a greater chance of being bitter!).  But Jesus still sends his followers to that place, because wisdom emerges from what you do with your pain!  It is a unique and needed perspective, as poets, artists and seers have always understood.  In fact, I would find it hard to understand all of the beatitudes in any other way (see Matthew 5:1-12).”  (page 101)

    Job on dungheap (from the Admont Giant-Bible, ca. 1140) 

                Chapter five purports to be all about power—both good and bad.  Richard Rohr, however, enters into a conversation concerning pain, a seemingly tangential focus.  His discussion concerns how individuals and communities ultimately deal with pain and suffering, whether it is from physical causes, rejection, failure or any other source.  Another way of understanding what the quotation is pointing toward is that in pain, human beings are able to focus on what is most important, making first things first, or as a friend of mine from many decades ago used to say, “to stop majoring in the minors.”

                Those who have never experienced pain in any form are less likely to be able to understand it or even come close to one who is in pain.  Sickness, and the attendant pain, can be an extremely uncomfortable situation for human beings.  Too often I have heard parishioners say they didn’t want to visit someone who is seriously ill, perhaps even terminally ill, because they don’t know what to say.  And I must say that in that discomfort we sometimes babble and say the “wrong” thing.  I am certain that everyone reading this meditation has some knowledge of the character Job.  Some may not know the whole story, and if you do not, I recommend a good reading of the Book of Job.  After he has been inflicted with boils, a condition which renders him a leper because of oozing sores, Job goes out of the city to sit on the sewage pile (dung heap) and to reside there.  He has three friends, Zophar, Elephaz, and Bildad, who come from a great distance to visit him, having heard of the calamities with which he has been afflicted (including losing ALL of his children, his wealth and his health).  From a distance they see his misery and as they approach, they internalize his pain to such an extent that they remain silent for seven days, simply sitting with Job.  After seven days they produce more pain with their words and arguments.  Each asks in long poetic discourses what Job has done, how Job has offended God, to bring this suffering upon himself.  To each Job replies, “Nothing, I am innocent.”  His “friends” will have none of that and continue to batter Job with their accusations.  Job finally becomes so angry that he does accuse God of not understanding, to which God replies, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?” (Job 38ff)

                There is much to learn from Job’s friends.  When I have been a part of the training of Stephen Ministers—or others doing much the some sort of visitation ministry—I have always cautioned against talking too much, rather listening and as we like to say “empathizing” with the other.  The ministry of presence is heightened by our own ability to grasp another’s pain by knowing how we have suffered in some form and at some depth.  I have never been diagnosed—at least not to date—with a terminal illness, but I know the pain of failure, rejection, and illness.  When I am able to access those feelings and memories, I can grasp at least a bit of the other’s fear, loss, and suffering and sit with them, perhaps weep with them, knowing that God is present and suffering alongside them.  My goal is to be present. The operative word is be, not do

                I remember a person who was seeking ordination who was asked at a conference where we explored with the aspirants their experience and understanding of ministry (it was called BACAM, but I can never remember what each of the letters of the acronym stood for).  This person was asked when he had failed at something.  He pondered for a while and said he had never failed at anything.  Many of us knew that he had failed to complete two areas of study, he had had a failed marriage, and there were other areas that were problematic.  He was not recommended for postulancy, because the team felt he would never be able to grasp the pain and suffering of others until he could come to grips with the pain in his own life.  He reminded me of Job’s friends.

                Pain and suffering, regardless of the cause—be it illness, death of a loved one, our own impending death, accident, termination from a job, financial woes, divorce—can, and I say can, help us to prioritize our life in a healthy manner.  As Rohr says, it can also make us bitter.  By seeking priorities, we have the opportunity to focus on the true first things and let some of the niggling “stuff” go. 

                I do not encourage anyone to go out and seek pain just to be able to relate to others better; but I do encourage everyone to think back to those time that have been painful.  Some have experienced bullying in childhood or youth, some have suffered from illness that was debilitating, even if now recovered; some have lost loved ones who were close.  Whatever your life experience, it is worth recalling those times to see in retrospect where God was present in order to look for God’s presence in the present.  Lent is a great time to reflect; let this be a part of your reflection, not just so that you can rejoice in knowing God’s presence more thoroughly, but in order to proclaim God’s presence to others now.  How else are we going to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?”

    Thursday, March 15, 2012

    Lenten Meditation 15 March 2012

                “A prime idea of the Bible is its very straightforward critique of power, from Genesis to Revelation.”  (page 85)

    Caiaphas questions Jesus, by Matthias Stom 

               From the very beginning of his book Things Hidden, Scripture as Spirituality, the author Richard Rohr had posited that there are themes, or as he calls them dots, that connect the entirety of Scripture from the beginning to the end.  A long time priest friend who grew up Southern Baptist uses an expression for the whole Bible that I dearly love: he speaks of everything from “Genuine Morocco to maps.”  I was listing to him teach many years ago when he said that and I had to ask for clarification.  He explained that many Bibles are leather bound, and on the front cover is printed, often in gold leaf, “Genuine Morocco”.  Then he asked me, “And where do you invariably find the maps?”  I replied, “At the very end.  Oh, now I see.”

                Rohr takes this theme—or dot—of critique of power and builds chapter 5, entitled good power and bad power.  His discussion of power may make some readers uncomfortable and others angry.  Jesus does the same thing when he challenges the powers that be in his own culture and time: the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Scribes who are all trying to put Jesus in his place with both subtle argument and direct confrontation, leading finally to Jesus’ crucifixion.  Even the Roman Imperial government comes under Jesus condemnation when he refuses to meet the power of government in a quid pro quo fashion by calling down the army of angels to dominate and defeat Pilate, Herod, and finally the Emperor in order to save his own life.  At his so-called trial before Pilate, the governor asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?... Jesus answers, ‘My kingship is not of this world….” (John 18:33-36)

                Part of the problem that we continue to wrestle with is the power of this world versus the power of God’s kingdom.  When all is well with the world, at least in my little corner of the world, I am quite happy to rely on God and to put my “whole trust in his grace and love” as we promised in our Baptismal Examination.  When life is chaotic or I am experiencing the attacks of either the Enemy or other human beings, sometimes both at the same time, I tend to want to rely on and exercise what Rohr calls “dominative power” which he describes as “the ability to influence events or others through coercion, punishment, threat, money, the power of my role or any other external force.”  This is what our author calls “bad power.”  Jesus life and witness, throughout his life is the exemplar of “good power.”  From the Garden of Eden to the present day, God could have chosen at any point to overwhelm us human beings with force to make us behave properly, including annihilation of the entire created world.  However, God chooses to be a God who reveals God’s self as “a God who is willing to wait, allow, forgive, trust and love unconditionally.  (page 89)

                My challenge continues to be how I use power.  Do I act out of fear, thus dominating others including my family, those with whom I work, the members of the diocese? Or am I willing to put my need for control into neutral and make my primary focus relationship and reconciliation.  I believe the latter is Jesus’ image and that to which He is calling us.  If indeed Scripture is to become spirituality for me I need to work continually on that as a growing edge which will take the rest of my life to hone.  Lent is our yearly opportunity to reflect on our relationship with God who is not punitive, threatening and coercive but forgiving and who loves unconditionally—even me.  I encourage you to reflect on your own use of power—good and bad—and set as discipline for the remainder of Lent, or as 12 Step programs say “Just for today”, a reflection on how you relate to others.  Then go back to the Liturgy for Ash Wednesday and pray through the Litany of Penance once again.  Accept the forgiveness which God is offering, forgive yourself, and then begin the difficult task of forgiving others.  May your day be filled with God.

    Wednesday, March 14, 2012

    "I am with you always . . . "

    Lenten Meditation  14 March 2012

                   It seems this is more than enough for God to create the yeast and the critical mass that God needs to unfreeze and save the world. ‘The whole batch is holy if the first handful of dough is holy’ as Paul says (Romans 11:16).  We rub off on one another because true spirituality is always contagious.”  (page 84)            

    Jesus Appears to the Disciples, Congregational Church of Austin, UCC

                   “In polite company one never speaks about religion, politics, or sex.”  That was a mantra with which I was raised, and there are probably a fair number of those who are reading this, particularly if you grew up in the Episcopal Church, that heard the same or a similar “rule”.  Of course, there is a quite valid reason for never discussing any of those subjects:  it is far too easy to fall into argumentativeness with politics; if when speaking of religion one might become arrogant and make others seem to be wrong; and sex is just plain embarrassing.  The mantra really came out of the Victorian Era of what we now believe to be total repression of the human psyche.  I was in a conversation recently with someone who had not heard that sentence but was talking around it.  When I quoted my mother, she said, “Then what is there to talk deeply about?”

                   Episcopalians have always—at least in my lifetime--been uncomfortable talking about our faith.  Unlike some of our Evangelical brothers and sisters who have been raised with personal witnessing within the worship service, our experience was to be at worship alone with God, supposedly ignoring the fact that there are others in the same space with us.  “It’s God and me and no one else.”  That is why the introduction of “Passing the Peace” was so uncomfortable; Episcopalians had to admit that there were others in the church with them.  Before I began to be an acolyte at about age 7, my mother chastised me when I would look around, and especially when I watched the other parishioners returning to their pews from the communion rail.  “This is not a time for watching others; it’s a time to be alone with God,” she would say, suggesting I should bow my head and close my eyes.  Children (and adults when we are willing to admit it) are curious about our surroundings and want to see who all is with us.  We really do want to know that we are not alone, but that we are part of a community of worshippers.  And yet we are extremely cautious—embarrassed—about talking to one another about the incredible experience of being in relationship with God. 
                   As Jesus is about to ascend, he gives his 11 disciples their final marching orders including a promise.  “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”  (Matthew 28:19-20)  He does not tell the eleven to go hole up in some house so that they will be safe; he orders them to get out of their protective shell, take some risks, and bring others into the beautiful relationship with the Living God that they have experienced.

                   I remember vividly when the “Decade of Evangelism” was proposed in the 1980’s the reaction of many of the congregation I served in Norman, which mirrored much of the Episcopal Church.  We were aghast that we might be forced to go door-to-door passing out tracts or to stand on a street corner asking if passersby were saved.  That seemed to be the only expression of evangelism that was possible.  Even today we forget that one of the questions of the Baptismal Covenant asks, “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?”  We promise in our response, “I will, with God’s help.”

                   I am convinced that part of the reason the Episcopal Church—and every other main-line Christian group—continues to decline in numbers is that we are not willing to be “witnesses,”  the term Jesus uses for his disciples (Acts 1:8), to the grace, love and mercy of God in our own lives.  Everyone in the US knows, because we have seen enough lawyers on TV, that witnesses can only testify to what they have seen and heard or they will be challenged for giving hearsay testimony which is inadmissible.  I can only be a witness to my life in Christ, to the miraculous deeds that I have seen and experienced, to the transformation that has occurred in my life.  Why am I so reticent to share God’s love?  Could it be that I am too timid?  Now is the time for all of us to pray for the courage to allow our deep spirituality to “rub off” on others and take those baby steps of sharing how the Good News of God in Christ is alive in me.  Begin with a trusted friend who you know will not ridicule you and practice until you are comfortable enough to speak to someone not so close.  God will give you the opportunity; remember Jesus’ last words in Matthew 28:20, “Lo I am with you always…”