A Prayer of Gratitude for Marriage Equality

Fractio Panis - Image from the Catacomb of Priscilla

Fractio Panis from the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome (Wikipedia)

Most generous God, since the earliest days of your Church, when your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, first invited us to the banquet feast of the gospel, we have – in our brokenness and sin – sought to exclude those whom we considered unworthy to share in the sacrificial gifts you have placed into our hands. Seated at the Council of Jerusalem, less than a score of years after the Ascension of the Lord, your own Apostles debated whether the uncircumcised were welcome at your table. Through the providence of your guidance, the gospel was opened to those whom the prescriptions of the Law had excluded.  Thank you, generous God, for welcoming us all to your table.

We ask your mercy, most holy God, for in the centuries since, we have proven intransigent in our unwillingness to remember the words of the Apostle James, that we should, “not make it difficult for the nations who are turning to God,” and instead we have continued to add “other burdens” born of our own provincialism, narcissism, and prejudices. Forgive us, merciful God, for the times when we have failed in your commission to share the good news of freedom for the oppressed. We failed because we feared that their freedom would somehow cost us the privileges we have come to enjoy, and it is only perfect love that can cast out that fear. Forgive us our failure to obey your command to love one another as you love us. Thank you, holy God, for your mercy.

God of all love, we give thanks to you, as we continue to move forward into an era in which the loving, committed unions of men and women of the same sex are recognized and celebrated in our sanctuaries and in our courthouses. We give thanks to you, God of all rejoicing, for we know that it is only in our love for one another that we know you and see your face.  May we hear the echoes of your laughter in our own cries of joy at the welcome of our brothers and sisters.  In celebrating love, may we come more fully into the knowledge of the love of Christ, which surpasses all understanding.  Thank you, joyful God, for your love.

Guide us, God of wisdom and compassion.  As the light of your extravagant generosity grows ever more bright in our world, may we not neglect those who remain in shadow. May we hear the voices of those who no longer feel welcome at your Celebration, whose cries of dissent have been silenced by the tide of inclusion. May we remember, in our fallibility and brokenness, that we too fall short of the glory of God, and even at our best we only glimpse the truth of your grace through a glass darkly. May we always include in your Church those with whom we disagree, our fellow sinners for whom your beloved Son gave his precious life. As we offer them welcome, may we also never cease to seek out the other sheep of your limitless flock, who – through our own failures in proclaiming the gospel – continue to believe themselves outside the scope of your grace. Thank you, God of wisdom and kindness, for the expansiveness of your grace.

In all things, may we celebrate that your mercy triumphs over our failed judgment.  For you have called us to act with justice, love kindness, and walk humbly before you.  When given the opportunity, may we choose welcome over rejection. May we choose mercy over moral superiority.  May we choose fellowship over ostracism.  Ultimately, may we choose love over everything, for you, our God, are love. Amen.

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Doctrine, Disagreement, and the Holy Spirit

Bishop-elect Philip North SRC: Christianity Today

Bishop-elect Philip North
SRC: Christianity Today

I find this article deeply troubling.  For reasons I genuinely cannot understand, the ordination of women remains a contentious issue for some Christian clergy.  I can, however, understand each side’s insistence on defending their claims to orthodoxy, but the idea of refusing the laying on of hands by clergy who differ on the topic strikes me as profoundly theologically unhealthy.

How can the intentional unwillingness to receive the laying on of hands be anything other than a rejection of Christian unity? For a person of faith, the physical act of laying on hands is the act of trusting the Holy Spirit to create unity between the work that has gone before and the work that we hope to do. Rejecting it strikes me as a clear and arrogant assertion that the Holy Spirit who works through the flawed and sinful hands of one’s opponents is somehow not the same Spirit who works through the flawed and sinful hands of one’s allies.  Doing so elevates theological disagreement from simply a matter of difference of perspective or interpretation to one of inferior or superior status as an instrument of God.  Making that assertion is hubris.

We all have our bigotries, and many of us try to allow the collective wisdom of the Church, and the direct work of the Holy Spirit, to help pull us out from our provincialism, superstition, and bigotry. To reject the help of that Spirit if it comes through the hands of fellow Christians – regardless of their political or theological bent – is to reject the very thing that gives the Body of Christ its strength.  

To continue with the somatic metaphor, it this sort of rejection is like an auto-immune response in which the body is so eager to keep out intruders that it even attacks parts of itself, sometimes with devastating results.  We cannot be so intent on challenging what we consider unhealthy to the Faith that we destroy the very fabric that knits together.  In fact, questioning the legitimacy or validity of the presence of the Holy Spirit in a believer with whom we disagree on doctrinal grounds undermines the very purpose of the Holy Spirit as Jesus explains it in Chapter 14 of the Gospel of John, “…the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”  It’s the role of the Holy Spirit to help us find unity and draw closer to the truth of God’s will – together.  Keep in mind that even the Apostles, who knew Jesus personally, took thirty years to decide that Gentiles could also be Christians without converting to Judaism (see Acts 15).  It was another 1800 years before any Christian consensus on the topic of slavery was reached.  To reject the reality that the Holy Spirit’s power and authority transcends our differences, failings, and sinfulness, is to reject the very nature of the Church. We rely on the Holy Spirit to unite us and guide us together, however slowly we might move, toward justice.

Along the way, Paul – whose writings are often the foundation for the arguments of the most doctrinaire among us – cautions us to be humble. In discussing the the disagreements regarding superstitions of some believers about meat sacrificed to idols, Paul reminds us in I Corinthians 8:11, “By your knowledge weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed.”  “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23) means that the grace which we proclaim our fellow sinners need is also the grace which our own sins desperately require.

We can and should fight passionately for the issues we think are crucial to the faith, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that the people with whom we disagree are not the only sinners in the debate.  Whether it is our wisdom, or ignorance; our inclusion, or bigotry; our faithfulness, or licentiousness; none of it changes the reality that we are all flawed and ignorant of the true mind of God.  To be clear, I think those who reject full participation of women or LGBT persons in the life of the Church are the “weak believers” acting in ignorance and/or bigotry.  But they are still my brothers and sisters in Christ, and if – flawed, broken, and sinful person that I am – I can be an instrument for God’s work, they can be too.  To assert otherwise, to limit the power of the Holy Spirit to those who are ideological perfect, is to simultaneously impugn the transformative nature of the gospel and damn us all.

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Pondering the Cross

Women at the Crucifixion - Andres Mantegna

Women at the Crucifixion – Andres Mantegna (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the eighth chapter of Mark, Jesus is finally revealed to be the “Messiah,” one anointed by the Creator to change the world on behalf of the created.  Jesus immediately explains to his followers that being the anointed one of God means he will suffer rejection and pain to the point of death.  When Peter is horrified, Jesus explains that his friend is looking at the moment of Jesus’ execution from a human perspective, not a divine one.  To help him understand, Jesus gathers the whole crowd and explains that life is more than our physical existence, and that if we live for the things that are eternal – rather than the transitory distractions of everyday life – we will truly live, forever.  “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”

Shortly thereafter, a voice from above reveals Jesus to be more than simply one of the anointed ones, the messiahs who – throughout history – have rescued humanity at God’s behest.  We hear, “This is my Son, the Beloved;  listen to him!”  Again Jesus is quick to clarify, “The Son of Humanity will be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and after three days he will arise.”

Twice Jesus is proclaimed by others as one set apart by God, and twice Jesus speaks up to make clear that this does not mean glory, power, and respect – it means betrayal, torture, and execution.  To be the Child of God and the child of humanity, both, means to be stretched out on the altar of human fear, weakness, and greed.  Living at the intersection between divine truth and human experience, Jesus’ path has only one possible destination:  the grave.

In response, Jesus’ closest friends, those who were tasked with establishing his Church and passing on his teachings to subsequent generations, “did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”

Not much has changed in the two millennia since. We are still confused and afraid of the idea that even the Son of God, that especially the Son of God, would be the victim of all of the worst elements of what it means to be human.  Over the course of history we have, in our fear and embarrassment, offered many explanations in the hope of applying some sort of logic to the incomprehensible death of God in human form.  We have argued that only the blood of the Messiah could ransom us back from the devil who had made us his vassals.  We have portrayed Jesus as a benevolent Lord who stepped in to pay the lengthy bill we have racked up against God, each itemized value representing the sum total of our failures on earth.  We have even depicted Jesus as a willing sacrifice before a God who demands the blood of an innocent in propitiation for our multitude of sins.

Although superficially satisfying, none of these rationalizations stands up to close scrutiny or logical analysis.  None is consistent with a God whose steadfast love never ceases, and whose mercies are endless.  An omnipotent God who seeks to offer mercy to sinners would surely not do so by cruelly punishing the only true innocent.  Simply put, the crucifixion makes no sense.

Those whose faith relies on simple formulas to explain the mind of Almighty God will be quick to point out that it does make sense if you recognize that the reasonable and fair punishment for every single human who ever lived is eternal torment and damnation in Hell, and that only the profound love of God, literally embodied in someone punished in our stead by the concentrated power of that divine justice on the cross, could save us from the fate we all deserve.

If that is true, then we are either at the questionable mercy of a tyrannical Creator who could not devise a system that avoided the murder of innocence and the eternal torment of all creation; or we are all part of a cruel and capricious universe that punishes us and our Creator equally.

As one uncomfortable with either conclusion, I must confess that I find all of the easy explanations for the nature of the cross to be unsatisfactory.  I think it is best to follow the example of Jesus’ own apostles, and recognize that in the death of Jesus there is a mystery that encompasses all our fears, and all our hopes – one we are afraid to understand.

Like Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, and the other women who gathered to watch the kind teacher and powerful prophet suffer and die, we must simply stand before the cross in horror and grief.

Our horror is the realization that we are capable of such brutality and cruelty.  Our grief is in seeing in the loss of the Child of Humanity the losses that every human faces:  the deaths of our loved ones, the ends of our dreams, the depredations of illness and disease, and, ultimately, our own demise.  When we look into the pained eyes of Jesus, we see ourselves reflected in a mirror that shows our failings – individually and as a species – and our own pain.

It is the brutal honesty of the image in that looking glass that makes us want to find explanations of the cross that are centered on ourselves:  Jesus did this for our sins; God required this for our mistakes; look how horrible we are.  Maybe, though, we should look through that darkened glass and focus instead on the Jesus of the cross, not the Jesus who exists as a strawman for our guilt.

I do not mean focusing on the humanistic, secular Jesus who fought for social justice, healed this sick, fed the hungry, and cared for the poor.  He is important, and we should not neglect him as part of the whole truth of the gospel, but standing at the foot of the cross is the time to ponder the divine Jesus, the holy Jesus who is – against all reason – both God and human in one wounded, bleeding, sobbing package.

Leaving aside all of our justifications and seeing only the person of Jesus, I am struck most powerfully by the inevitability of it all.  As Jesus said, to his disciples in Mark 8, this is what had to happen (δεῖ in Greek, often used to indicate an obligation or an inevitable consequence).  The very act of God taking on human form, of experiencing mortality, is not only death, but a brutal murder at the hands of a callous empire that places no value on human life.  Jesus stepped into our lives knowing that this must happen, and did it anyway.  Whatever the reason that it had to happen, the greatest miracle of the cross is that it did happen, that a God who is beyond our comprehension, our own Creator, is so drawn to us that nothing – not even the inevitability of agony and death – could hold God back from stepping into our lives.

Another miracle is that it is possible at all.  For many of us, the slow slog through adulthood is one of a gradual surrender of our belief in the miraculous.  We “grow up” and learn to live in the “real world,” and the myriad challenges of our mundane distractions cause us to deny the possibility that there is divine, holy, metaphysical reality beyond the one that demands that we feed our bodies and pay our mortgages.  Yet at the cross we can see the collision of the world we deny with the world of our limitations.  The reality of God becomes physical, not in a voice from the heavens or words carved on stone tablets, but in the lifeblood of a single person, given up freely out of love.

That leads to one more miracle of the cross.  The blood that falls to the ground looks like a loss, a terrible, incalculable loss – and yet it is a victory.  Every terrorist, every tyrant, every abuser has claimed their power through the threat of violence.  They hold us hostage with the ultimate menace of their power over whether we live or die.  However, as we see the shadow of the cross loom across the generations, we see that death is only defeat for those who lived their lives for the pleasures of the moment.  The paradoxical miracle of the cross is that in loss is victory, in sacrifice is gain, and in death there is life.  Our priorities do not need to be dictated by the standards set by others or by our own fears of loss, because real accomplishment looks nothing like what those with temporal power would have us believe.

If we focus on the person of Jesus, we see the miraculous mystery of the cross.  We see love that cannot be dissuaded.  We see the reality of the presence of God in our world.  Finally, we see the truth that that the things that matter most in our lives are not the things that can be taken away, they are the things we can give to those we love, to those we do not know, and even to those who will follow in our footsteps.  The story of the cross is not the story of our sin, it is the story of the person who represents the best of creation and the best of the Creator: the Child of Humanity and the Son of God.  It is the story of the glorious and traumatic consequences of eternity’s collision with mortality.  It is the ultimate story, in which all good things come to an end, and we learn that – all evidence to the contrary – endings are beginnings.

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How I Can Be a Christian

Origen of Alexandria

Origen of Alexandria (source: wikisource.org)

How can you be a Christian?  How can you be a pastor?

I suppose, as a socially progressive, academic clergyperson who lives in the Deep South, it is hardly surprising that I get asked these questions…a lot.  When someone learns that I teach that the Christian Scriptures are a collection of documents written and edited over centuries, and that those writers and editors were influenced by political and social forces as well as theological ones, they are often surprised to learn that I read the Bible and pray every day – even while knowing that not everything contained therein actually happened.  When they learn that I have a long history of advocating for same-sex marriage and reproductive freedom (including access to abortion) they are surprised to learn that I also believe and preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The question comes from both sides.  Christian fundamentalists (or “evangelicals” as they prefer to be called to avoid confusion with people who hold identical social beliefs but attribute them to a different collection of scriptures) often believe that their interpretation of Christianity is the only authentic one.  For them, failing to hold to the beliefs they impose on the tradition is a rejection of the tradition as a whole.

Interestingly, non-Christians seem to be under the same impression.  Presumably their understanding of what Christians believe is based upon the portrayal of Christians on TV and in movies, and upon the representation of Christians on the news.  From that limited perspective, Christians are people who cling to a quaint, “traditional” understanding of society and a “literal” interpretation of the Bible.

So, from the perspective of the left and the right, those of us who take a more thoughtful, historically-conscious approach to our faith must not be “real” Christians.  Here are some reasons why that view is short-sighted:

1. Fundamentalists aren’t really that “Fundamental”

Fundamentalists of every stripe like to portray themselves as biblical literalists who cling to the “timeless” truths of their tradition.  This is very far from true.  The beliefs and  practices of twenty-first century evangelicals would be viewed as permissive and libertine by their nineteenth-century predecessors, and would be almost unrecognizable from the perspective of the Early Church.  Since most people lack the historical perspective to recognize any changes that go back more than a century, modern evangelicals get away with calling themselves “traditionalists” when it’s really just that their innovations are slightly less recent than those of “progressives.”

They also are no more “literal” in their treatment of the Christian Scriptures than anyone else.  I have already dealt with that here, here, and here.  I do not feel the need to rehash all of those points in this essay, so I will limit myself to the observation that fundamentalists only treat texts literally when it supports their social agenda.  Those texts that run contrary to that agenda, or which undermine their claims about the Bible’s divine authorship or historical accuracy, are interpreted allegorically – often with astonishingly convoluted logic.

Consequently, I see no reason that non-fundamentalists should be held to a standard that the fundamentalists themselves do not keep.  Perhaps if fundamentalist Christians become pacifists who hold no property, fast multiple times a week, gather to stand for worship services that last an entire day, and require years of study before a person can become a convert – then I might find their argument more compelling.

2. Knowledge Moves Forward

The reality of the history of Christianity, however, is that beliefs about doctrine, Scripture, worship, and the nature of Christian obligation change dramatically from century to century.  Every religious tradition does this.  If they did not, those traditions would quickly fade into irrelevance.

Studying the evolution of those changes, and the process that produced the Christian Scriptures, often poses a dilemma for young seminary students.  They essentially have three choices.  They can reject what they learn in seminary, and persist in a more simple understanding of the faith.  They can reject Christianity, believing that if the understanding of Christianity they had in Sunday School is not true, they cannot be Christians any more.  Or, they can find a way to participate in the tradition that is honest about biblical and historical scholarship.

I have chosen the latter option.  In every area of knowledge, our understanding of how to interpret observable phenomena changes as new information emerges.  We do not consider physicians “liberals” or “heretics” because they do not think a fever comes from an imbalance of the “humours of the body” or because they do not treat it with bleeding.  Nor do we claim that fevers did not exist in the eighteenth century because physicians of that era described them imprecisely and did not understand their cause.

The practice and study of faith should not be exempt from this process.  The Bible is the record of several generations’ encounters with the presence of God.  Those encounters were interpreted through their cultural beliefs, political concerns, prejudices, and superstitions.  Subsequent generations then re-interpreted those writings through the lenses of their own assumptions and limitations, as our generation does as well.  Being honest about that reality does not minimize or contradict the reality of those original encounters with God.  Nor does it impugn the honesty and sincerity of the faith journey of subsequent generations.

3.  Accountability

So should we just believe whatever we want and call ourselves “Christians?”  Nothing could be farther from my point.  To continue the example above, if a physician said, “Well, if fevers aren’t caused by a humour imbalance then I might as well believe they are caused by aliens” one would question the legitimacy of their medical training.  Likewise, recognizing that biblical and theological scholarship calls into question the assumptions of past generations does not mean that we should all run willy-nilly into whatever theological trend or ludicrous spiritualism seems appealing.

Through seminary training and graduate school, the ordination process, and continuing, prayerful study of both scholarship and Scripture, I hold myself accountable to the history of the tradition and the perspective of my colleagues.  This is an important element to Christian practice – it is not an expression of individual belief.  Christianity is about living in community.  Recognizing that the history of the tradition reveals drastic sea changes in belief does not mean abandoning accountability to the community that is rooted in that history.

4. Comfort with Ambiguity

Yet, as we have discussed, very few of the members of that community agree on everything.  Even limiting the boundaries to mainline Christianity, there is considerable diversity in belief and practice.  The obvious reality is that we cannot all be right, and – based on the long history of changes in Christian assumptions about “incontrovertible” truths, the Church has likely been wrong more often than it has been right.  An honest assessment of the truth of the Christian tradition means comfort with ambiguity; far fewer truths are as certain as we would like them to be.  Christianity is about a journey toward truth, not an affirmation of it.

5. Reality

Finally, I am a Christian pastor because – for me – the Christian tradition helps me understand the world as I have experienced it, and because Christian worship draws me closer to the metaphysical world I have glimpsed from afar.  There have been times when the presence of God has been a real and sustaining force in my life.  Prayer has brought me peace and focus, and I believe – along with Martha Berry and my Great Grandmother – that “Prayer Changes Things.”

I would not presume to claim that Christianity fully encompasses the depth and complexity of a transcendent God, but it draws me closer to that God whom my own experiences have convinced me is real.

Concluding Thoughts

A famous seventeenth-century quote by Rupertus Meldenius, but often attributed to St. Augustine, can be translated: “In essentials, unity; in uncertain things, liberty; and in all things charity.”  This logic is at the heart of why I am comfortable as a Christian and a member of the clergy.  Our essentials come from the broad consensus of the tradition, yet an honest appraisal of the history of Christianity reveals that – beyond those essentials – there is far more uncertainty than some might wish or claim.  Ultimately, if the gospel is to be “good news,” we must seek it – charitably – together as a shared question, not a settled answer, and my life is the richer for that journey.

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Easter Wishes

The Empty Tomb by van Eyck

The Empty Tomb by van Eyck

The earliest gospel account closes with the mystery of an empty tomb. The disciples found themselves at a loss to understand how to move forward without the teacher and friend who had claimed to be the Son of God but died the brutal death of an executed criminal.

Later accounts describe the return of Jesus from the dead, offering anecdotes in which his disciples touch him, walk with him, and share meals with him. It is then, when they have encountered Jesus alive and in the flesh, that Jesus’ followers are able to believe.

For those of us who try to follow in their footsteps, we are again faced with the dilemma of the empty tomb. We do not have the luxury of touching his scarred hands or watching as he breaks bread with us. We struggle with doubt. We fear that the time and energy we have put into following this itinerant carpenter were as wastefully spent as the herbs and perfumes that were futilely plied against the pervasive odor of decay in the place where they laid his lifeless body.

The only chance we have for faith in the resurrection is to find hope where the disciples found it: in the living Body of Christ. And therein lies the greatest challenge of Christianity. For us to believe, Jesus must be physically present in the world, but Christ is only present in the world if we are willing to become him.

Even still, for thousands of years the miracle of Easter has repeated itself time and time again. Against all odds, people find ways to rise above their weaknesses, fears, and selfishness to work for a world where the meek, the poor, the merciful, the hungry, and the peacemakers are the blessed, the honored, and the privileged.

We cannot ignore the eternal hope joyfully proclaimed on this day everywhere around the world: “Χριστός ανέστη εκ νεκρών, θανάτω θάνατον πατήσας!” (Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death through death itself.) But we must also honor the miracle that keeps that hope alive and remakes it anew with every generation.

With those who share my religious tradition, I proclaim “Χριστός ανέστη!” – in honor of the risen Son and also in praise of all those who through their faith and sacrifice work to keep the Body of Christ and alive and present in the world.

With those of other traditions, I can understand why today of all days the claims of Christianity seem suspect. Time and again the Church betrays its promise and its potential. Even still, I hope that in each of our journeys we will hear the voices that call us beyond the limitations of fear and death. In this season of Resurrection, may we all find ways to keep alive those things that really matter, that allow us to become more than we are even in our dreams, that draw the presence of divine reality into our everyday lives.

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