Thursday, November 19, 2015

Faith, Hope, and Love in a Time of Chaos, Fear, and Hate

Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.
                St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 13:13

It might be a surprise to some that 1 Corinthians 13, commonly known as the "love chapter" was not written by Paul for use at weddings.  It was written by Paul as the bottom-line of Christian living.  In all of Paul's writings this may be the clearest in describing how following Jesus works.  His intent may have been clarity, however, it was not ease.

The acts of love described in 1 Corinthians 13 are several:

  • Patience
  • Kindness
  • Joy in Truth
  • Forbearance 
  • Faithfulness
  • Hopefulness
  • Endurance.
These come with opposites.  Love is not
  • Envious
  • Boastful
  • Arrogant
  • Rude
  • Joy in Wrongdoing.
Paul was a smart man and certainly knew that he was writing to human beings who would find following the way of love difficult.   That does not mean that he gives us the benefit of the doubt when we fall into those opposites.  We need always to be on the alert and when we are tempted by envy, for instance, or find ourselves discounting someone who is not like us (that's what he means by "rude"), have the capacity to bring ourselves up short and change direction (the meaning of "repentance").

Now if we combine this with the position of Jesus that everyone is our neighbor, without exception, then we have chosen the hard road to take, but it is the only road, both Jesus and Paul say, that we can call faith, hope or love.

It is extraordinarily difficult to follow the way of faith, hope and love in a world where the temptation to lose our values in the sea of chaos and fear and hate is on "high alert."  Perhaps the greatest single temptation is simply to say that reality of this age of terrorism means we cannot always follow the way of Jesus and Paul.  When we fall to that temptation then suddenly "taking care of our own first" trumps taking care of our neighbors, especially when those neighbors are from a strange and foreign culture or religious system.

The hard truth is that "charity begins at home" and "safety first" are not Christian values, never have been and never will be.  We can never successfully work out our suspicion and fear in that way.  Jesus did not command us to love our neighbors as ourselves except when we fear them.

Do we have the right to protect ourselves? Of course we do.  But the trick is to do so without living a fearful life and demeaning those we perceive to be our enemies.  We are actually told by the one we call Lord to love them.

Terrorists by definition want to breed terror.  They want to throw the world into chaos, make people live in fear, and define the world by the hatred of us vs. them.   We allow them to be successful when we give in to any of those things, when we allow them to undermine our own values by their threat, but also by our own hand.

To react in fear and even hatred is to cooperate with their agenda.  So let's not do that.  Let us unite in faith and hope and love.  It is a hard road.  But if we confess ourselves to be Christians, it is the only road that will lead to the kingdom of God "on earth as it is in heaven" for which we pray.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

All Hallow's Eve: "Take us to Share Your Glory"

What has become many people's favorite holiday is the Eve of the great Christian festival of hope--All Saints' Day.  "Hallow" is the old English word "holy."  In New Testament Greek the word haggioi, "the holy ones."
translated as "saints" in English is

All Saints is a celebration not of those whose good deeds and exemplary Christian life we celebrate and often call "saints."  They are included, of course, but All Saints celebrates what God has done for all of us.  "Holiness" is a gift, not an achievement, and it is a gift to all.

Some would say that Easter is the great Christian festival of hope, and they would not be wrong.  There is a direct line, however, from Easter to All Saints' Day (a line that goes through the Christian feast of Pentecost celebrating the gift of the Holy Spirit poured out on all flesh).

All Hallow's Eve (or Even) contracted over time to Hallowe'en.  It became a night to ward of the power of evil that attacks and tempts every human being.  What better way to spit in the face of evil than to mock it with a costume?

Many believe that Hallowe'en is a direct descendant from the Celtic pagan feast of Samhain.  That is true in a sense. Samhain was at this time of year and All Saints' Day was clearly established on November 1 to counter the pagan feast.  Yet what happened, as it often happened in Christian history, the pagan feast was not done away with, it was co-opted.

What about "All Souls' Day" (November 2)?  As All Saints' Day came to be thought of as a celebration of those the Church called saints because of their exemplary lives, a second feast developed to include "all the faithful departed" (which is the day's title in the calendar of The Episcopal Church).  It has become a special day for individual Christians, families and parishes to remember those who have died and entered the nearer presence of God.  As such, it tends to be a more sober day than All Saints', although in truth we are celebrating the same thing both days.

Ultimately this is our yearly celebration of the communion that remains between those living at the present time, and all those who have died, expressed beautifully in the beginning of the prayer for the day in The Book of Common Prayer:

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord...

Here's one of the prayers for the day in A New Zealand Prayer Book:

Eternal God, you have always taken men and women of every nation, age and colour and made them saints; like them, transformed, like them, baptised in Jesus name, take us to share your glory.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Fall out my Window

No, I haven't fallen out my window.  Just grateful for this beautiful time in the Southern Tier of New York State.  This is the view out my study window these days.  The picture doesn't quite do it justice because it is bright orange as I look at it.

Here are some other pics I've taken in the last couple of weeks.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Pope and The Common Good

I just listened to Pope Francis' address to the United States Congress and to all of us who call this country our home.  It was a brilliant speech and very moving.  I was especially struck by his use of
the phrase "the Common Good" over and over again.

I think we need to be clear what are the enemies of the Common Good, particularly in the political arena.  Ideological thinking, I believe, is the greatest of these.  By thinking I mean the adherence to a set of ideas as absolutes which divide the world into those who are for us and those who are against us.  The temptation, of course, is not just a political one, but also a religious one.  The temptation is to raise the convictions of belief and value that I hold to the level of closed revelation, absolutes that must be adhered to in order to be a "good" American or person of faith.

The biblical story is one in which the People of God are constantly challenged by this temptation, assuming that God demands these kinds of choices.  Yet in the end, as Francis I think is saying, there is only mercy, love and blessing.

Over the course of the biblical story, God's desire to bless his people is God's desire for the common good.  The act of blessing is too often thought of as the making special of an individual or group of persons above others.  Yet that is not at all biblical.  The heart of blessing is gratitude and generosity; I cannot bless that for which I am not grateful and toward which I am unwilling to be generous.  To bless is to not only wish the best for another, but to commit one's self to making the best come true.

There is no blessing without the common good.  And the "common" in "common good" is in the realm of the mercy of which Francis so often speaks.  The mercy of God makes the embrace of God and the desire of God for our well-being wider than even our powerful imaginations can fathom.

I this political season I long for these core values to find expression.  In a world beset by religious ideology (which I believe is an oxymoron) I long for the same.  Even though I am not a Roman Catholic I am grateful for the voice of this Pope calling us to these values, unafraid of where those values might take him and the world.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Taking Up Your Cross: Committing to the Values of the World to Come

Remembering Father Kenneth Leech (1939-2015), who died on September 12.  Fr. Leech was one of the great prophetic voices in the church in our time.  It was a privilege to be in his presence, but also to read his books, all of them leading in some way to transformation of thought and action.  I am struck that yesterday's Gospel reading included these words of Jesus;

Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." (Mark 8:34)

And today, September 14, is the Feast of the Holy Cross, when we pray:

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him...

A book of Fr. Leech's to which I return again and again is We Preach Christ Crucified.  In it, he has this to say about Mark 8:34 and the radical call to take up our cross.

Like many of the 'hard sayings' of Jesus, this sounds impossible.  It is only possible through the power of the cross itself by which we have in fact been crucified.  This is what Paul means when he speaks of the destruction of the old self.

[Romans 6:6-8] We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin...But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.

It is only through solidarity in the cross that we can attain solidarity and communion with God in the life of the new age.  There is no short cut.

What does it mean to bear the cross?...To be a Christian is to be signed with the mark of the cross, the baptismal mark of incorporation into Christ.  To bear the cross in solidarity with Jesus is not to endure some mysterious kind of suffering which is thrust upon us, still less is it a way of describing an interior psychological attitude or orientation.  It is a path freely chosen, the social reality of committing oneself in this world to the values of the world to come.  This is clearly a call to lose on's life for the sake of the gospel. It is not a call to imitate Jesus as a figure from the past but to follow the risen and present Jesus of today....To respond to the cross is to follow, to share; it is to be a disciple.  it is to respond to a new and amazing relationship of co-operation with God which is utterly different from the relationship of slave to master. We are sealed not as slaves but as children, as inheritors of the Kingdom of God.  [We Preach Christ Crucified, pp. 60-61]

Thanks be to God for Ken Leech: rest in peace and rise in glory in the world to come.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Political Correctness

A particular presidential candidate these days is getting much traction over his fight against "political correctness."  As I understand it, he means to claim that he has the right to speak however he wants, whenever he wants and to whomever he wants.  This is the essence of freedom of speech and politicians' enslavement to political correctness is one of the fundamental factors in keeping America from being "great again."

Freedom of Speech is, of course, a constitutional right, and, I, for one, do not want to see much limitation of that right.  As the saying goes, you cannot yell "fire!" in a crowded theater.

But here's how I think it works:

The Freedom of Speech, as well as all the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, is not a set point in the universe; it is a dynamic thing.  Individuals, groups of people such as families or affinity groups or communities of any kind are constantly negotiating what Freedom of Speech is, and, what is more to the point, what the consequences are for it.

Now you are, of course, free to assert that there should be no consequences of free speech, but that is simply not true, even in the world of "shoot-from-the-hip" presidential candidates.  Speech is always being negotiated because community itself is always being negotiated.

The pejorative "political correctness" (it is almost always used pejoratively) implies that some force is keeping me from saying certain things that also has the effect of keeping me from speaking the truth.  "Political correctness" always has the hint of conspiracy about it.

Part of the negotiation of community, and of free speech, however, is individuals and groups of people having the right to define themselves.  They get to decide what it means to treat them with respect.  Donald, for instance, does not want to be called Don.  He insists on being treated with a high degree of respect and a fundamental part of that is the speech you use around him and especially about him.  In one sense, that does not make him special at all.  We all do this.  It is part of the negotiation of community.

When you call a woman a "bimbo" much of America (one hopes!) is going to call you on it for using a demeaning and disrespectful term.  You can continue to use it; that's your right.  But you can neither expect the larger community just to shrug its shoulders, nor, if you persist, can you stop others from calling you a bully.

Freedom of speech as a fundamental right of every American has to constantly be negotiated with another fundamental value (at least):  the dignity of every human being and the right of our society to shape one of the great aspirations of our Constitution:  "to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility...[and] provide for the general welfare."

So-called "political correctness" should not be a pejorative, it is simply a manifestation of individuals or groups of people aspiring to these high values.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Jesus says it is time for some humility

The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.  Psalm 51:18

Dear White Christian America,

If we are ever going to get off square one in talking about race in this country (not talking about talking about race, which we do endlessly) then we should take some 3,000 year old advice from King David of Jerusalem, the purported author of Psalm 51.  We need a troubled spirit and a broken heart.

This is different (please, please hear this) than guilt.  There may (probably) or may not be (unlikely) things we need to feel guilty about in regards to race, but we cannot possibly know that without first listening and conversing with our black and brown sisters and brothers.  My own experience is that for the most part they do not want our guilt. They want our ears, our spirits, and our hearts.

In other words, they want our acceptance that things are not as they should be and our grief that they are not.  Yes, it is grief that is necessary for our participation in this conversation and not our guilt.  Grief may be what we most need to enter into true conversation, because grief almost always humbles us and defuses our defensiveness.  Grief is a great equalizer across the human spectrum.  This is true in a way that guilt can never be.

Grief takes us out of the realm of right and wrong, a deadly realm in which we seem to get ourselves more and more mired.  We live increasingly in a quicksand of bombast, defensiveness and mistrust (and often demonization) of those who are different from us or those with whom we disagree.  We will never have an actual conversation that moves us forward as long as we are stuck in this mess.

One of our current presidential candidates puts forward the desire to "Make America Great Again."  We Christian people know (don't we?) that greatness is born in humility.  We believe in a Savior whose troubled spirit and broken heart (Remember his weeping over Jerusalem?  His grief in the Garden of Gethsemane?) was the path to greatness. St. Paul put it this way, "Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself...being found in human form he humbled himself."

My fellow Christians if that is how our salvation was won, do we expect our greatness as a nation to be won any other way?  Do we expect that continuing to build "one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all" will be done any other way?

Most of the time these days I despair that we will ever be able to come together as a community across racial lines, the divide is so deep and ugly and angry.  The quicksand seems too deep, and we have been stuck in it too long.  But let's have a little faith, my fellow Christians, a little humility, an acknowledgement that reconciliation is necessary not deciding who is to blame is enough movement of our hearts and spirits for God to pull us out of the muck.

It is actually what our God does best, but we are free people and we need to ask for help, acknowledge that we need help and offer our broken hearts.  Without that kind of humility nothing changes.

Faithfully yours,
A White Christian American