Praying South Carolina

This morning in St. George, South Carolina, a very unfortunate trial begins, pitting the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina against The Episcopal Church (calling themselves in this case The Episcopal Church in South Carolina).  Those who’ve been even mildly following this tale will recall that in November 2012 a majority of the parishes of South Carolina, under the leadership of their bishop, the Rt. Rev’d Mark Lawrence, voted to leave The Episcopal Church.  Under the oversight of judge Diane Goodstein, the trial to determine, pretty much, who is the rightful overseer of The Episcopal Church in the Palmetto State is slated to last through next Friday, July 18.

It’s hard to know what to pray for today.  Peace?  Justice?  I suppose praying, as Jesus taught us, for “thy will” is a pretty good start. 

As it is, the whole affair seems unfortunate.  There is, on the one side of this fight, that egoistic vitriol and vaulted self-righteousness of those who cannot abide in participatory, representative movements of the Body of Christ; the very definition of what it means — or at least what it has meant since the 18th century — to be a practicing Anglican in this country.  And, on the other side, just think of all those (probably) millions of dollars being spent by The Episcopal Church on drawn-out legal affairs.  We should also admit that there has been such an emerging liberal orthodoxy in The Episcopal Church — the fundamental basis of which should shock no one — but which, unfortunately, nowadays, seems more aligned with secular progressive politics and less with sustainable, theological diversity in the Body of Christ.

It’s hard to know what to pray for today. 

In the meantime, then, while we’re being honest and holding at bay the agendas of both sides, don’t quote to me Paul’s injunction against taking a fellow Christian to court (1 Corinthians 6).  Neither, for that matter, do I want to hear how this process clearly goes against Jesus’ conflict resolution plan, as given in Matthew 18 (vv.15-20).  Jesus and Paul are right.  We are wrong.  Yet while those injunctions in the New Testament are clearly the stated goal of those who practice life in the kingdom of heaven — and for a while at least Jesus’ followers were more akin to bringing the kingdom of heaven a bit closer to earth — we, the followers’ followers, have created an institution of this world with power and prestige and, yes, property.  That’s why it’s in the secular courts; that’s why a secular judge is dealing with this matter, starting today, in St. George, South Carolina.  If you want to cast stones, throw them both ways.

Instead, though, I’d suggest prayer.  But it really is hard to know what to pray today.

MARK LAWRENCE Bishop of South Carolina

I’ll suggest, for starters, that Bishop Lawrence, himself, should re-learn how to compose a Collect.  Writing a Pastoral Letter to the Diocese of South Carolina yesterday, July 7, Lawrence offered “a prayer crafted earlier by the Very Rev. John Barr, soon to be retired rector of Holy Comforter, Sumter, which I have slightly adapted for this present trial:

Gracious and Sovereign Lord, we pray that your will be done during July 7—18th. May we want what you desire. Guide and be mightily present with Alan Runyan and the other attorneys who represent us and with those who testify on our behalf. May the courtroom be filled with the pleasant aroma of Christ, and at the end of the day, protect this diocese and its parishes that we might bring the redemptive power of the biblical gospel to the South Carolina Low Country, the Pee Dee and beyond. Let not our fear of outcomes tarnish our joy or deter us from the mission you have given us. Enable us to bless and not to curse those on the other side of this conflict. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. And in the power of the Holy Spirit make us victorious over-comers wherever this road leads us. For we ask all in the name above all names, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

It starts well: praying for “your will,” and that we may “want what you desire.”  That the courtroom be filled with the “pleasant aroma of Christ” is a nice touch, although I don’t know what that would smell like, but then to pray that God “protect this diocese and its parishes,” those parties who, apparently, are preaching the “biblical gospel” is a bit heavy-handed.  That presumes your opponents really are something stinky!  I also have no problem with praying for your attorneys, but I’d also suggest that you may then want to pray for the attorneys who represent the other opinion.  “Enable us to bless and not to curse” is also a nice offering but, as you’ve stated, it’s for those “on the other side” and it’s hard to balance fighting language and peacefulness in the same line in the same prayer.

The gift of the Anglican tradition is that we’ve learned and, with the exception of Bishop Lawrence’s prayer, above, taught others how to write prayers that do not serve as a political rallying cries, issuing forth their own heavy-handed agendas.  Rather, we’ve developed the patient craft of praying Collects that enable God’s people to say, time and again, “thy will be done.”  This principle goes both ways: resisting those who are conservative just as much as those who preach liberal messages.  This principle is not only important but holy and good.  This principle which creates, in effect, a church constituted solely as a praying body, gathered under one Lord, Jesus Christ, is perhaps the only thing that will, in the end, save North American Anglicanism — positioning our Christian movement to be represented as the one, trustworthy place in our communities that’s authentically working on building true diversity and real community, grounded not in our moment but for eternity.

I’d say the Collect from last Sunday (Proper 9) is the perfect one to pray:

O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Millenials, the Creative Class, and the Church

A new television series aired this week.  Adding to the plethora of shows about saving and fixing restaurants and bars,  ‘Church Rescue’ features three church consultants who help local congregations improve their mission, build their flock, resurrect their mission and market, and find ways to improve their offering.

Congregations and faith-based organizations are facing a storm of issues, not the least of which are the new economic realities of this 21st century.  These changes feel scary and there’ll be a greater deal of turbulence to come, but the reality is pretty simple: the old, established world and worldview and, add to that, economy – an economy in many ways created with no small amount of blood, sweat and tears by visionaries like Henry Ford; the economy which led to the birth of an American middle class – is coming to an end.[1]The world as we know it has shifted.  And we are shifting with it.  But we’re not alone.  Take the Millenials, for instance, the generation of young adults who were born in the late 1980s and 90s.  This first generation to come of age in the new millennium – hence their name – will also be the first generation in modern times to make less money than their parents.  They’re not lazy or narcissistic, and it’s not that they’re ineffectual, having been coddled by their so-called ‘helicopter parents.’  It’s that what the institutional Christian church is dealing with now, as a first-world, not-for-profit, somewhat secularized institution, the members of this generation been dealing with their entire adult life.  Ever since the early 1970s, since just before they were born, there’s been an increasing and encroaching wealth gap in America along with a fundamental stagnation, if not regression in the economy.  Around that time, the mainline institutional church had already measured its high-water mark, being aware because their numbers were sliding downward.

Here’s a thought: why don’t we, the church, learn from the members of the first generation that is, already, living into that new world, a situation, for them, that isn’t better or worse or changed but is pretty much reality?

The Millenials know, firsthand, what economic stagnation and regression feels like.  On the whole, they’re incredibly well-educated; after all, their parents told them that college and graduate degrees were key to success.  But “the price of attending a public four-year college rose 54% from 1998 to 2008 while the typical American household earned less in 2008 than it did a decade earlier, adjusted for inflation [sources: College Board, Leonhardt]. Therefore, to pay for the education touted by parents, teachers and the government as critical to future success, millennials took on massive debt, a record-breaking $35,200 on average for each 2013 U.S. college graduate.”[2]  These young adults have also been hit hardest by the nation’s worse economic collapse since the Great Depression.  Because those Baby Boomers who were thinking about retiring sometime in the first decade of the new millennium held on to their positions, being suddenly faced with diminishing nest-eggs, the debt-laden Millienials, who thought they could get a good job to pay off their student loans,  found themselves facing huge unemployment or under-employment.

What the American economy has realized – the 2010 census revealed that overall household income, across the board, has stagnated  – Millenials have been dealing with their entire adult lives and most middle-class Americans have faced for at least a generation.  According to The Economist, “Current incomes are at roughly the level of the late 1970s. [But] the cost of everything from housing to education has risen steadily in recent decades. From a real income perspective [for] the median household, the picture is one of a generation of stagnation.”[3]  “From 2000 to 2010, when many millennials entered the workforce, median household incomes fell for the first time since World War II,” Dave Roos adds, continuing: “It’s hard to make more money than your parents when jobs are paying less for the same work.  The wealth gap between older and younger people has also widened significantly over the past 30 years. A 30-year-old in 2013 is worth 21 percent less than a 30-year-old in 1983. Meanwhile, the net worth of the average 60-year-old today is more than twice as high as 1983. In other words, young people keep getting poorer, while old folks get richer.”[4]

But there’s hope and I’d say it’s real, Christian hope.  When polled, the Millenials report astonishingly high degrees of happiness, contentment and optimism.  According to the Pew Research Center, “a whopping 88% of people ages 18 to 34 said they had enough money or would have enough in the future to meet their long-term financial goals. …Even among those who said they were unemployed and financially strapped, 75% said they would someday have enough money. Overall, nearly three out of four believed they would achieve their goals in life — or already had — which was slightly more than among older adults,” the Los Angeles Times reported, quoting Kim Parker, associate director of the Pew project: “It’s hard to imagine a time when there was this level of optimism among a group so hard hit by economic conditions,” Parker said.[5]  To find out why their optimism is so high, look at the way the Pew survey question was worded, Roos cautioned: ‘Do you now earn enough money to lead the kind of life you want, or not?’ “The Pew survey found that the youngest generation is surprisingly old-school in its life priorities,” Roos wrote; “Millennials chiefly want to be good parents, raise happy children and give back to society. How much money is ‘enough’ to meet those admirable, but not necessarily expensive goals? That amount will likely be different for everybody.”

The Millenials will earn less than their parents, according to the old economic model, but they are also the first generation in a long time to be engaged in creating a wholly new, substantially different world and, as a result, a newly ordered economy.  That explains why, according to Roos, “their elders are less hopeful for them. Fifty-four percent of Americans over the age of 55 thought young people today were unlikely to have a better life than their parents, compared with 42% of those ages 18 to 34.  Over the last two decades, people in their 50s and 60s have tended to be less upbeat about the chances of their children living as well as they do, according to data from the General Social Survey.”[6]  What the Millenials’ Baby Boom parents name pessimistically as loss is really just something they fundamentally cannot see.  They can’t see that the old, ‘Fordian’ economy has passed away.  They can’t see that, perhaps, such an economy is not the be-all and end-all of the world, itself, and they can’t see that something else, something creative, may very well be emerging out of the rubble heap of the old order.  They can’t see that that something new is, in fact, emerging.[7]

The world as we know it has shifted.  And I want to step out here and say, in fact, God is in this change.  The excitement embedded in the new ‘creative economy’, to borrow the compelling phrase from economist Richard Florida, and the ways in which social media is just the tip of the iceberg of these emergent voices is reason enough, for me, why their optimism holds real hope – real Christian hope – for our planet and society and, yes, for Christ’s church.  For the first time in a long time, there are adults who know how to cross-pollinate ideas, how to truly collaborate without fear of ownership or sabotage, how to interact and ‘friend’ others – regardless of whether they work for the same company, went to the same school or share the same politics – and how to find a greater, common good and enter freely into relationships with people of different backgrounds, races, religions, traditions, and sexual orientations.

You better believe this is going to change the church, the way the institution we created in modern memory and beefed up in very recent years operates and functions.  You better believe that this will feel, to many, like unsteady turbulence.  With those, we will be patient; for them, we will make space.  But you’d be wise to believe that God is also in this: that the Creator actually intends to reconcile it all, one with another; that Christ who lived and loved as one of us actually wants the vast human family at His expansive table; that the Spirit which has been moving in our midst for this long actually meant to light this fire.  It is hard, so very, very hard, to resurrect a worldview and, with it, to rebuild an economy.  But what’s so hard is also so good, so very, very good because it takes the holy risk of vulnerability – risking to share, risking to believe that God is in the future, just as He’s been in the past, risking to be set free from all that once weighed you down.


[1] Insights shared from Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class

 

[2] Dave Roos, “Are Millenials Really the First Generation to do worse than their Parents?” http://money.howstuffworks.com/personal-finance/financial-planning/millennials-first-worse-parents1.htm

 

[3] The Economist Online, “Cutting the Cake,” http://www.economist.com/blogs/dailychart/2011/09/us-household-income

 

[4] Roos, “Are Millenials Really the First Generation to do worse than their Parents?”

 

[5] Emily Alpert, “Millenial generation is persistently optimistic,” Los Angeles Times, 7 July 2013  http://articles.latimes.com/2013/jul/07/local/la-me-millennial-optimism-20130708

 

[6] Roos, “Are Millenials Really the First Generation to do worse than their Parents?”

 

[7] Attributed to Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative ClassRevisited (Basic Books, 2012)

Relational Evangelism

At a certain point in his ministry, Jesus expanded his mission to the outlying territories, commissioning 70 disciples and sending them out to heal, to prepare for his upcoming arrival, and to preach a simple message: “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” (see Luke 10)  They go out in pairs and they’re to be fixed, solely, on that kingdom and its message.  They carry pretty much only what’s on their back, and they go in haste – “greet no one on the road,” Jesus tells them.  They are solely dependent on God’s intervention, and their only livelihood is to knock on doors and spread the message.

This is what we tend to think of as the dominant form of evangelism: door knocking.  I don’t know if this makes me a bad priest, but I’ve never knocked on a door to talk to a complete stranger about God or their faith life or the Christian church.  Nor have I ever started a conversation by saying, “Let me tell you about Jesus…”

But I tend to think that I’ve won some souls to Christ and I’ve been a decent-enough ambassador of God’s good news.  Sure, I’m a work in progress, as you are, too.  And I’ve never gone out with an agenda to convert people and I, too, am comfortably surrounded by plenty of creaturely comforts.  But through my life’s witness, in general, and, from time to time, my own words, I know God has acted through me.  I think it’s time to spread that good news, as well.

The Episcopal chaplain at the University of Maryland – one of the campus ministries in our Diocese of Washington – has been developing over the years what he’s called “relational evangelism.”  It’s not door knocking, and it’s pretty agenda-free.  Maybe some might say it’s not evangelism, per se, but I can see God acting in and through this kind of strategy, too.  It’s all about relationship.  Think about it: as you get to know someone, what do you learn first about them?  What they do, where they grew up, if they have a family, and other basic facts of life.  Then, over time, as a relationship develops, that person might share with you their hopes and dreams and aspirations; what’s on their heart.  After even more time that person might share with you their struggles and sufferings and shortcomings.  God is in that, even when God’s name isn’t necessarily used and even when you’re not trying to get that person to come to church or accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior.  In fact, the degree to which you, yourself, open expose your own deeper hopes and hurts will determine the degree to which that other person will do the same.  In that truth, then, there is the gentle yet profound hand of God working, developing something new, something truly worthy of being called “good news”, something which is life giving in the boldest sense of that term.  What’s to say that relational evangelism isn’t as effective or gospel-sanctioned as knocking on doors or setting out to win souls to Christ?  Who’s to say that God isn’t acting in and through that deepening relationship, and your own ability to show forth His grace in you.

On a campus of 41,000 students, the Episcopal campus ministry in College Park, Maryland might attract 41 or so … and that’s on a good day!  That handful of students and inquirers and faithful are getting what you get in the Episcopal Church every week, every time we gather for worship: they and you are getting a full dose of Jesus.  Ours are not necessarily “seeker friendly” services, although we try to be welcoming and hospitable at the same time.  What we’re doing in here – and they are doing at the University of Maryland Episcopal campus ministry – is giving people a full taste of God in Christ, in the hopes that you and I will continue to become the Body of Christ on earth.  That’s why I paraphrase a sermon from St. Augustine every time I invite you to come and receive Holy Communion; in just a few moments you’ll hear: “These are the gifts of God for the People of God.  Become what you receive: the Body of Christ.”  We’re all works in progress, of course, and no one among us has got it all figured out.  But in our destination as well as in our journeys – as broken and marked by fits and starts as they surely are – we are reflecting or, I should say, we are capable of reflecting God’s abundant, just, gracious, and life-giving kingdom, right here on earth.

It doesn’t matter, then, how many people are in worship – whether it’s a tiny campus ministry on a huge university campus or a small parish church in a rural setting or a grand cathedral.  It matters, only, how deeply a few might touch and taste the kingdom of God, right here on this side of heaven, and in being touched might, in time, touch others and share His grace – even when they’re not trying, even when they’re not using the right ‘buzz’ words, only as relationships deepen and they find themselves standing right in the very place where God would have them be: which is the now and the present of their lives.

I take this from the scriptures, of course; in particular, the wonderful story about Elisha and Naaman which can be found in 2 Kings chapter 5.  Naaman, we learn, is a decorated and notorious military commander, but he suffers with an awful case of that debilitating ancient disease: leprosy.  From a slave girl, Naaman learns about a certain prophet who lives in Samaria – that being Elisha – and sets out to find him and, hopefully, find some healing and relief.  When, through a series of events, Naaman and Elisha are poised to meet, the prophet doesn’t even come out of his house.  No, Elisha sends word that that great General is to go to the Jordan river and dip in and out seven times.  That’s it.

What’s Naaman’s response?  He’s enraged, insulted, and hurt.  He’s not at all pleased.  “He won’t even come out of his house to greet me?!” Naaman says, insulted, his ego surely bruised.  Add to that, why would Naaman take a dip in that little, dirty, trickling creek – the Jordan River – while back in his home there are much more beautiful, lush rivers?  He left and headed for home, not only let down but enraged, the scriptures tell us.  A servant approached Naaman, however, and gave him a little nudge: “If the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?”  At that, Naaman went to the Jordan, washed seven times, and he was healed.

What did Naaman go to Samaria to see?  A prophet, a man, someone to heal him?  Or did he, in fact, go to a foreign land only to find what was in front of him the whole time?  Removed from his comforts and distractions, perhaps Naaman was able to see the truth for the first time – that God, his God, was always already working in him and all he needed to do was the simplest (and yet hardest) thing in the world: listen, trust, pay attention.  So often in life we overlook the simple things, the present reality, those gifts which stand right in front of us, day after day after day.  This life, for one, and those who accompany us on our journey – our friends and family and co-workers and associates.  All of these are gifts.  Opportunities to show forth our own innate talents, as well as those challenges which remind us that we aren’t perfect – that this life is all about stumbling forward, and doing so with the courage to remember that we need God’s grace and good friends. All of these are gifts, presents in the fullest sense of that word.  And it’s all been right in front of us, these incredibly simple and straightforward things which we, too often, overlook on our attempts to become better or different or someone we’re not, yet.

“The kingdom of God has come near,” Jesus preached and told his disciples to say the same: “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”  I hope you know this and, truly, I hope you get a small taste of this today, in worshiping, in hearing and receiving and taking and becoming.  And I hope you not only have the courage to let this truth in but also to let it out, to share it in your life and in your own relationships.  Not by way of an agenda or mission but simply and wholly because you can’t help but want to become His Body and live in the freedom of His kingdom, alone.

“To work beneath the surface of things” – the Ascension

Christians do a great job of celebrating Christmas and Easter, but it’s really Jesus’ ascension which ‘seals the deal.’  Forty days after Easter, Luke tells us in the sequel to his gospel, Acts of the Apostles (1:6-11), Jesus ascended into heaven in front of the eleven disciples: “…as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (v.9)  They stood there, watching and waiting.  At that moment, similar to Easter Day, two men in white robes appeared and said to them, “Why do you stand looking up to heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go.” (v.11)  Immediately, they set about to work, no longer dependent on Jesus’ earthly presence.  Immediately, they did what they knew they were capable of doing, spreading the good news in word and deed.

That’s a great question: “Why do you stand looking up to heaven?”  Most of us are conditioned to look for direction from elsewhere, not within.  Why do you stand looking up to heaven?   Because we’re so conditioned to look for direction from elsewhere we’re also lousy at practicing freedom. When we talk about freedom, then, we tend to think about being free from something — from others, from expectation, from binding laws.  That’s not what God means by freedom.  For God, freedom is not being free from something.  It’s being free for something.
Christianity is a religion of freedom, but be careful: what Christians actually celebrate is that we are free, in fact, to exercise the better angels of our nature, to borrow Abraham Lincoln’s phrase.  We are free, truly free for the exercise of higher spiritual values.
All of this, we say, is because Jesus took up our nature, our humanity, with him.   Without the Ascension, we’d never get around to doing what we’re capable of doing.  Without the Ascension, we’d be sitting around, drifting aimlessly, acting like wild-eyed children, practicing the freedom which is really lawlessness, or waiting for another leader, monarch, dictator, self-help guru or diet commercial to tell us what to do.
The 16th century reformer, John Calvin, taught that our material nature is already in heaven, at least in part: “Since he entered heaven in our flesh, as if in our name, it follows, as the apostle says, that in a sense we already ‘sit with God in the heavenly places in him’ so that we do not await heaven with a bare hope, but in our Head already possess it.”
And Brooke Westcott, the 19th century Bishop of Durham (England), wrote: “By the Ascension all the parts of life are brought together in the oneness of their common destination. By the Ascension Christ in His Humanity is brought close to every one of us, and the words ‘in Christ,’ the very charter of our faith, gain a present power. By the Ascension we are encouraged to work beneath the surface of things to that which makes all things capable of consecration. … He is not only present with us as Ascended: He is active for us. We believe that He sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”
It could be said, in a sense, that Christians gather to re-learn and practice a freedom which this world does not, cannot teach.  We gather and enjoy and engage, as Bishop Westcott said, “the surface of things” — we make friendships, build community, serve the needy and oppressed.  But we are cognizant, at the same time, that we’re also, everyday, “working beneath the surface of things to that which makes all things capable of consecration.”  A freedom such as that is not to be missed.

The Home of God

On a Saturday afternoon several weeks ago in Kentucky, a former Roman Catholic Carmelite nun, Rosemarie Smead, was ordained a catholic priest.  For obvious reasons, this made something of a splash.  (Click here for a story.)

Rosemarie Smead ordained a priest, Saturday 27 April 2013. Source: Reuters

This past week, in related news, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Freiburg im Breisgau, Robert Zollitsch, said at a conference on reforming the church it’s time for the Roman Church to at least consider ordaining women deacons.  This doesn’t have as much drama as the first story, but it may have more staying power and, if so, it’ll have much longer-term interest.

These kinds of stories are not only interesting because of what they report but what they represent – why it is that they get buzz.  Apparently, lots of people want to hear about this.  I’d suspect it’s because some dominant strands of Christianity show an apparent foolishness and close-mindedness about women.  The Reuters report about the Kentucky ordination cited a poll which revealed that 70% of American Catholics say they would be in favor of women being ordained priests.

Contemporary Christianity is, for some of us, recovering from a centuries-long failure to appreciate women in leadership positions.  The official reason the Roman church gives for why women can’t be priests is because Jesus chose twelve men.  That’s true, at least on the surface.  But I’m often struck that people who say they read their bible or those who claim to know the heart of the Christian tradition, inside and out, often fail to notice what’s actually going on there.  One doesn’t have to read between the lines; there’s no hidden story in the New Testament: the male-dominated Christianity that excludes women from leadership positions is not the kind of Way which Jesus practiced, and it’s not the religion of Jesus’ earliest followers.  Let me be very clear: for Jesus and the bulk of early Christianity, I can find no distinction between male apostles and female apostles.

Women are not only characters in Jesus’ life but, in fact, key players.  Jesus chose twelve male followers but it can hardly be argued, after looking up from the pages of any gospel, that there was only a set and select group of disciples.  Jesus’ mother, Mary, not only says “Yes” to God’s intervention in her life, she also ministers alongside him – all the way to the very end.  Jesus’ best friends were a trio of siblings, Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha – whose home Jesus often retreated to in Bethany.  In John’s gospel, the first person to whom Jesus reveals he is, in fact, the Messiah is a woman: a Samaritan woman at the well.  And the first witnesses to the resurrection, the very defining concept of our Christian faith?  Women, all of them.  Then there’s Mary Magdalene, about whom much has been added through the ages, some of more ancient years designed to blacken her character, some of more recent years to take away the spotlight from her genuinely faithful relationship to Jesus.  Whatever you’ve heard about Mary Magdalene suffice it to say that the New Testament presents her as a shining exemplar of a truly great disciple and, no less, apostle of the Risen Christ.

Jesus’ gender inclusion continued in the movement which kept alive his spirit.  In Acts of the Apostles chapter 16 you meet a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth.  Paul met her and several other women in Philippi on one of his travel journeys.  Lydia became interested in the story of God reconciling the world in Christ, and she and her entire household were baptized.  Moreover, she became a major patron of the early church and founded a church in her home.  It should also be mentioned that Lydia is a self-made woman, of sorts: purple cloth was incredibly expensive, being made from a crushed shell from the Mediterranean sea basin; that’s why purple is the color of royalty — those of means and wealth were among the few who could afford such a dye.  There’s no Mr. Lydia:  just a wealthy, well-to-do, and self-assertive woman who helped the Christian movement significantly.  Read on and you learn of another couple who were leaders and apostles, Priscilla and her husband Aquila (Acts 18).  To the Galatians, the Apostle Paul stated emphatically that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female, neither slave nor free, for all are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)  The earliest forms of Christianity, just like Jesus’ own gatherings, were not only gender inclusive but they seemed to know no distinction between God’s acting through male or female leaders, for all indeed are one in Christ.

An all-male priesthood was made by us.  Not Jesus.  Not his earliest followers.  A hierarchical church which differentiated between women and men at some fundamental levels with exclusive consequences for leadership positions was also made by us, not Jesus.  And even though gender distinctions can also be found in the New Testament – most notably in the so-called household codes in which there’s an apparent pecking order: children obey parents, women obey husbands, husbands obey God (Eph. 5:22-6:5 or Col. 3:18-4:1) – the time of writing and origin of those documents seems to have more to do with a religion adopting the ethos of its culture and surrounding Roman imperialist society than following the clearly egalitarian and radical love-ethic of the God whom they knew as Emmanuel.

If you hear these words of mine as something like a politicized call to action or civil rights manifesto about inclusion for inclusivity’s sake, I apologize.  That’s not my intent, well, not my primary intent.  I’d like to take this another step, and at least in closing go a little bit deeper.  There is a spiritual message here.

Obviously, I don’t have an issue with raising up women in ordained leadership positions in the Christian church.  I do have an issue, however, with women being thrust into the maintenance and continuation of a centuries-long, male-dominated institution which has become known, for many, as “Christianity.”  This religion founded on the Way of Jesus is not enriched if we do little more than add women to the roster of traditional male roles.  (Interestingly, many of my female clergy friends have often remarked on how weird a feeling it is to put on the clerical collar for the first time.  Even priesthood’s dress itself – a backwards collar, no less – is a distinctly male article of clothing.)  I think what many are searching for is balance.

I don’t think that that 70% of American Catholics who say the church should be open to ordaining women as priests would be satisfied, entirely, by knowing that the celebrant or preacher or person baptizing their son or daughter could very well be a woman.  I think that that 70% is saying, in other words, they are tired of the ways in which the Jesus Movement which seemed so clearly bent on equality and life and justice became, in fairly short order, obsessed with power, position, posture, and wealth.  I think they’re calling for balance, at the very least, between the church which acts very much like a kingdom of this world and has, for centuries, nearly perfected an ethic of exclusion and judgment to now use its considerable wealth and voice to speak again the values of its Head: Jesus the holy child of God who modeled for us something truly profound and life-giving.

Whenever Jesus in the New Testament seems to describe what he’s about and the type of thing he’s trying to do, I’ve noticed he talks in surprisingly intimate, relational, domestic terms.  In the middle of his farewell address to his followers, according to John, Jesus urges them to love one another and goes on to say “my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (Jn. 14:23)  What a rich and intimate expression: Make our home with them.  There’s no institution or power or organization here, no politics or positioning or structure.  The image Jesus uses is blissfully tangible, direct and comforting: home.

There is an untold level of transformative power in the home.  Home is where the heart is, we say.  Home is where real change, real growth, real life happens.

While in Chicago, I taught for years in a Roman Catholic high school for girls run by the Sisters of Mercy.  The Sisters of Mercy acted like good daughters of the Pope but under the surface – and you didn’t need to scratch too deeply – they were open-minded and spirited radicals, committed to doing works of justice and mercy wherever it was God was sending them, no matter what the church’s official leadership said.  (Case in point: they hired me, an Episcopal man, to teach theology to Roman Catholic girls!)  I loved the Sisters of Mercy for their spunky and radical spirit, and I value their tradition very much.

Founded in nineteenth century Dublin by Catherine McAuley, the Sisters of Mercy live and practice an intentional and, as I said, radical ministry that is, at the same time, kind of quiet.  They founded schools and hospitals, orphanages and what Catherine called ‘Mercy Centers’ – places which transform society from the inside out.  Catherine McAuley once remarked: “No work of charity can be more productive of good to society than the careful instruction of women.”  This thesis, currently being tested with success in Afghanistan and other developing countries, is not predicated on sweeping political or structural changes.  Rather, Catherine argued, it’s about changing the values of the home, where women, at least in the nineteenthcentury, made their decisive mark.  If you can change the values of a home – if, for instance, because of her education a woman knows she has the power to exercise choices in life – then you change the neighborhood.  If the neighborhood changes, so might the city.  If the city, then the society, and if the society then, perhaps, the world.

I wonder what it might be like if Christians started exploring these cozier, homelier (*by which I don’t mean ‘unattractive’) and, frankly, simpler values of the One who lived as one of us: the Messiah who asked us to keep love alive so he and the Father will “make their home” in us.  Many are already striving for this balance and there’s much good news here.  For this very reason, I have to say that smaller churches such as St. George’s, Valley Lee are uniquely able to grow in vibrancy and vitality much more so than bigger church institutions – most notably those Cathedrals and dioceses and denominations which are shrinking and, if not shrinking, struggling to do little more than keep alive the tradition which built them years ago.  Perhaps the tradition of an overtly institutionalized Christianity is, these days, drawing its final breath.  If that is the case, and I suspect it is, we can say one positive thing: Jesus is not going anywhere.  Jesus is very much alive.  Nor is the movement Jesus began slipping away, but perhaps his Way which is predicated on those more intimate values of love and family, the home of God among us, is, these days, finding new life.

Need not wait to see what others do

Rami Elhanan is an Israeli who grew up in Jerusalem.  While serving in the army, during one battle in the Arab-Israeli War of 1973, his unit set out with 11 tanks and returned with only 3.  He lost friends and, even worse, lost his innocence.  He was broken, angry, bitter – and filled with hatred.  In time, he got married, started a career and a family.  On the evening of Yom Kippur 1983, he held in his hands his beautiful baby daughter, Smadar.  But on the afternoon of September 4, 1997, Smadar was killed by two Palestinian suicide bombers who took the lives of five innocent people in browing the shelves in a Jerusalem bookstore — one of them Rami’s beautiful 14 year old daughter.

Bassam Aramin grew up in the West Bank city of Hebron.  At the age of 12, Bassam saw one of his friends fatally shot by an Israeli soldier.  For him, revenge was a palpable, dark force.  He joined a group who called themselves freedom fighters, but those in power called them terrorists.  They threw stones, at first, and empty bottles but one day in 1985 he found several discarded hand-grenades in a cave.  With his friends, they threw them at Israeli jeeps.  Two went off; no one was injured.  Bassam was sentenced to seven years in prison.

After his release, Bassam began to build a life for himself, which included a family.  Sadly, however, on January 16, 2007, Bassam’s 10-year-old daughter, Abir, was shot in the head with a rubber bullet by an Israel soldier.  She was standing outside her school.  She died two days later.

Following such unspeakable tragedy, both men chose to do remarkable things.  Both men chose to stop the strife and warfare and anger and bitterness.  Both chose peace.

For Rami, Smadar’s death brought back his old, unprocessed anger.  But he couldn’t stir up enough even to reignite revenge.  A group called the ‘Parent’s Circle’ invited him to a session.  ‘Parent’s Circle’ brings together families who’ve lost children and loved ones in the conflict and yet still want peace.  From that session on, Rami’s world, he says, was turned upside down.  Those whom he once hated embraced him and loved him.  Former enemies were the source of his greatest consolation.

In 2005, Bassam founded ‘Combatants for Peace’ – an organization which brings together those who fought on opposite sides.  ‘Combatants for Peace’ evolved into a movement of individuals who yearned to simply talk with those whom their states told them were enemies.  As Bassam once remarked, “Abir’s murder could have led me down the easy path of hatred and vengeance, but for me there was no return from dialogue and non-violence. After all, it was one Israeli soldier who shot my daughter, but one hundred former Israeli soldiers who built a garden in her name at the school where she was murdered.”

We don’t do so very well in resolving conflict and finding peace with our enemies.  Even our best attempts fall flat.  Oscar Wilde famously instructed: “Always forgive your enemies – nothing annoys them so much.”  Godfather Michael Corleone gave what is, to many, sound advice:  “Keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer.”  Abraham Lincoln once offered a poignant line about making friends out of enemies but it, still, carries notes and scars of battle: “I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends,” Lincoln remarked.  Even when we try to make nice, we are often our own worst enemy.

That’s why Rami’s and Bassam’s stories are so unique.  It didn’t take decades and increasing maturity. It didn’t require the passing of years to realize that what once tore apart their souls with bitterness and revenge is now just water under the bridge.  Within moments – moments not years – of unspeakable tragedy, they responded with peace, dialogue, empathy and understanding.  Immediately: peace.

That’s what’s truly remarkable about the earliest Christian movement, as well.  In Acts chapter 10, there’s a famous story about Peter and a Gentile named Cornelius.  God tells Cornelius his prayers have been heard and that he should send for Peter, who’s staying in Joppa, a nearby village.  In Joppa, meanwhile, God presents a rather strange vision to Peter – a large sheet comes down from the sky with all kinds of animals.  In the vision, a voice says “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”  But Peter’s a good law-abiding Jew.  Understandably, he says, “By no means, Lord!  I’ve never eaten anything profane in all my life.”  “What God has made clean,” the voice says, “you must not call profane.”  Peter comes to just as a knock comes on the door.  It’s the men whom Cornelius sent.  Peter goes with them to Cornelius, they have a wonderful heart-to-heart and the Holy Spirit immediately descends upon the room.  Peter feels it and baptizes the whole household, right then and there.

What happened in that moment for Peter and Cornelius, like that which followed Rami’s and Bassam’s tragic losses, was immediate.  No study period, no checking with the elders, no consulting scripture or thinking about what’s been done before.  God swept in and peace happened.  And it happened immediately.

But that’s not exactly our situation.  Flip to Acts chapter 11 and you see the after-effects, the angry backlash.  The leaders of the Christian movement – a still Jewish movement – heard that a Gentile was baptized without first having to become circumcised.  They’re angry.  They call Peter to headquarters.  There, he tells the whole story: the sheet, the animals, the voice, the trip to Caesarea, the presence of the Holy Spirit.  What else could I do? Peter says.  It was so very clear, so very immediate, and I responded.

Like Peter, we don’t live in communities which quickly and altogether respond to immediacy of any kind, let alone an immediate turn from revenge to love, from being enemies to friends, from separation to unity.  In fact, I learned of the story of Rami Elhanan and Bassam Aramin from a 2012 documentary entitled, Within the Eye of the Storm.  It tells the story I told you, about their lives and the processes they both undertook to find peace.  They became friends.  But the film is also about the experience of introducing one another to their communities – communities which were not prepared and did not necessarily, automatically, immediately respond with the same kind of love and forgiveness and peace.  Imagine it.  An Israeli sitting with Arabs who quite literally – and, you might say, for good reason – hated him simply because of who he was.  An Arab sitting with Israelis who literally and, again, you might say, for good reason, saw him as a terrorist.  Forgiveness doesn’t come easily in this world.  Peace is not won swiftly.  None of this is ever immediate.

REINHOLD NEIBUHR
“Men must strive to realize their individual ideals in their common life but they will learn in the end that society remains man’s great fulfillment and his great frustration.”

The world in which we live is not geared towards wholeness and healing; it’s not designed for love and forgiveness.  American theologian Reinhold Neibuhr outlined in his now-classic 1932 book, Moral Man and Immoral Society, what’s called “Christian realism.”  Power and positioning and pride lurks everywhere in this world, at least this side of heaven, Neibuhr argued: sin is at the bedrock of the foundation of this world.  That’s why even our attempts to play nice sometimes turn out so rotten.

Being a person of faith, in general, and a Chrisian, specifically, involves the hard work of scrutinizing that which comes from within.  It may be of God; Jesus said the kingdom is near you.  It may not be of God.  Israelis and Palestinians are trained to hate.  That’s their base reaction.  A good law-abiding Jew like Peter was formed to avoid, at least, and by no means accept a Gentile like Cornelius.  That’s Peter’s gut reaction, in spite of the fact that he lived with Jesus all those years.  Even the apostles and elders of the Christian movement had a resistant gut reaction, a frankly reactive, bitter resistance.  What kind of person do you dislike, and for what reason?  What do you abhor and on what scriptural or political reasons do you base your opinion?  In it may be God, and it may very well be not of God.

It’s a certain truth that when God shows up he keeps shattering the boxes we make, blurring the lines we draw.  But when we take the risk to love and live as God so clearly does, the world says you’re unrealistic, naïve, and at the very least that you’ve gone about it all too immediately.

And yet ours is a faith that makes us try, still. No doubt you’ve seen a bumper sticker with a quote from Gandhi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”  Problem is, he didn’t say that.  Not exactly.  It sounds like a self-help magazine, and awfully, well, like a bumper sticker.  What Gandhi actually wrote was this:  “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in this world would also change.  As a man changes his own nature so does the attitude of the world change towards him.  We need not wait to see what others do.”

We need not see what others do.  Rami and Bassam, early in their lives, did what others did and they paid for it.  In time, they chose to live differently.  When tragedy struck, again, they did not wait to see what others did.  Peter didn’t wait to see what others did, either.  And that community, the church, which called him to task – they, too, were a little bit odd, a little bit strange, a whole lot spontaneous. The moment in that room was hardly silent after Peter recounted his story, for the Holy Spirit was moving and sweeping in her delightfully spunky and, you might say, radically upsetting way.  Immediately, they praised the God who shattered their prejudices and destroyed their small-mindedness.  Immediately, they rejoiced that theirs was a kingdom not of this world.  Immediately, they did a bold thing and were given the grace of God to do it with courage.  They may have looked back, they may have been afraid, but immediately they were also transformed.

Just because it burns doesn’t mean you’re going to die

“Peter felt hurt because Jesus said to him a third time, ‘Do you love me?’” (Jn. 21:17b)  ‘Felt hurt’ or, as in some translations, Peter ‘grieved’ is the Greek word (lupeo) that means to be distressed. When Jesus told his disciples he would be killed (Mt. 17:23), for instance, or when at the Last Supper he declared that one of them would betray him (Mt. 26:22) they became “greatly distressed” (lupeo).  It can indicate being ‘in heaviness’ or ‘suffering’ as in 1 Peter 1:6: “…you have been (lupeo) in heaviness in various trials.”

It’s odd that Peter is distressed when, in fact, Jesus is reaching out to him, asking him three times to love him.  Jesus’ actions are a counterpart to Peter’s earlier three-fold denial, a rather passionate denial, at that, with cursing and swearing in Matthew’s telling: “…Then Peter began to curse and he swore, ‘I do not know the man!’ At that moment the cock crowed.  Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said: ‘Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly.” (Mt. 26:74-75)

Peter’s once ‘bitter weeping’ becomes, in time, a different kind of grief – Peter’s heavy heart as Jesus restores the relationship once broken.  When God meets us, face to face, we are undoubtedly, like Peter, not just sorry but profoundly distressed, even to the point of grief.

And it feels so good.

Let me explain by way of a story.  (It’s a story told in Adam Makos’ book, A Higher Call; click here.  And in John Blake’s CNN report, “Two enemies discover a ‘higher call’ in battle; click here.)

CHARLES BROWN

Several days before Christmas 1943, high in the skies over France a young American B-17 pilot named Charles Brown was struggling mightily to get his nearly sacked plane and injured crew back to England.  Brown was all of 21 years old, a West Virginia farm boy flying his first combat mission when his “flying fortress” was shot to pieces by swarming fighters.  Half his crew was wounded, and the tail gunner was dead.

In a moment, Brown glanced outside his cockpit and froze.  Spencer Luke, his co-pilot, saw the same horrible thing.  A German Messerschmitt fighter sat just feet from their wingtip, having closed in ready for the kill.

“My God, this is a nightmare,” the co-pilot said.

“He’s going to destroy us,” Brown added, knowing that that moment was the end of his life.  Never again would he see his family and friends.  Never again would he breathe the mountain air of his hometown.  High above France, alone and frightened, that was how it ends.

But what they saw next was an odd thing.  The German fighter pilot didn’t shoot.  Instead, he nodded at the pilots.  And then did an even more amazing thing.

Second Lt. Franz Stigler was an ace fighter pilot.  One more kill and he’d earn the The Knight’s Cross, the highest award for military valor.  By late 1943, however, Stigler was no longer motivated by thoughts of glory or pride.  Earlier in the war, his older brother, August, a fellow pilot, was shot down and killed.  The tide of the war was shifting, and the war in the skies was increasingly difficult.  Exhaustion, war fatigue and untold loss were starting to get to Stigler.  By war’s end, it should be noted, of the 28,000 pilots who fought for the Luftwaffe only 1,200 survived.

FRANZ STIGLER

Dark and sinister emotions flooded Stigler. While he stood smoking a cigarette near his plane one afternoon, he heard the roar of Charles Brown’s “flying fortress,” a plane that was wreaking destruction upon the homeland he vowed to protect.  Filled with thoughts of revenge, he hopped in his fighter, saluted a ground crewman, and took off in hot pursuit.

Coming upon the American plane, he decided to attack from behind.  His hand was on the trigger.  Then he hesitated – no one was firing at him.  Flying closer to Brown’s B-17, he saw the tail gunner humped over and lying still, his white airman’s collar covered in blood.  The American plane was a sorry sight – its skin had been peeled away by shells, its guns knocked out.  Inside, he could see men tending the wounds of other crewmen.

He nudged his plane alongside the bomber’s wings, and locked eyes with the pilot whose own eyes were wide with horror.  Stigler eased his index finger off the trigger.  He couldn’t shoot.  It would be murder.

In that moment, alone in the skies with the crippled bomber, Stigler single-mindedly changed his mission.  He nodded at the American pilot, and began flying in formation so German anti-aircraft gunners on the ground wouldn’t shoot down the slow-moving bomber. (The Luftwaffe had B-17s of its own, shot down and rebuilt for secret missions and training.) Stigler escorted the bomber over the North Sea and took one last look at the American pilot. Then he saluted him, peeled his fighter away and returned to Germany.

“Good luck,” Stigler said to himself. “You’re in God’s hands.”

The horror of facing his own death, for Charles Brown, which quickly turned to his salvation is its own shock.  Franz Stigler’s turning from vengeance to empathy was an inner-struggle.  Setting aside revenge for compassion brings its own heaviness.  They saw the other’s humanity.  They met on equal terms.  The ending was happy but the process was heart-wrenching.

And it’s the kind of sorrow that just feels so good.

……….

Because it’s perhaps the one biblical passage with the single worst translation, across the board, any English version of the seaside conversation between Jesus and Peter about love (John 21:15-19) so utterly fails to convey what’s actually going on.  In the Greek of the New Testament, there are multiple words for love.  Agape is perfect and selfless love.  It’s looking out for the interest of the one who is loved, putting them ahead of self.  It’s what we call unconditional love, the love God has for us.  There’s a lesser kind of love, as well; the affection we have for a friend or family member, brotherly love.  In Greek, philios.

When Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, in John 21, the text alternates between different words.  You can’t hear this story let alone understand the message, unless you hear it closer to its original tongue.  Let’s give it a shot:

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you (agape) love me unconditionally?’ Peter said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know I (philios) love you like a brother.’

… A second time Jesus said to him, ‘Peter, do you (agape) love me unconditionally?’ Peter said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I (philios) love you like a brother.

…Jesus said the third time, ‘Peter, do you (philios) love me like a brother?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you (philios) love me like a brother?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I (philios) love you like a brother.’

Peter felt hurt, but it wasn’t remorse.

Peter felt the profound life-altering hurt of being truly, wholly loved.  God met Peter, face to face.  God comes to our level and loves us.  The response when we are so profoundly known and still loved, oddly enough, is a piercing heart-wrenching pain that is, at once, so refreshing.  Time and again throughout history — above all, when God became a vulnerable baby born in the utter darkness of the year — God risks everything, God risks God’s own majesty and stoops to our level, to our humanity.  God comes to us not in pomp or power, but in humility: along the shoreline for Peter and his fellow fisherfolk; for us, in the context of our own particular circumstances.

God doesn’t expect us to be better or in a different place but where we are, right here, right now.  And God asks us, like Jesus asked Peter, to love him in the way we can, putting aside any question of how we should.  There’s no judgment here, no brow-beating or submission.  There are no power ploys or manipulative games.  Just an honest invitation to relationship, as we can, with the One who loves us in all the ways we can’t.

The story Christian people need to re-learn and tell others is that we are moved to follow Christ not because we feel things that are better than an ordinary person does but, rather, because we are perfectly ordinary people who actually let ourselves feel, who are unafraid to be broken by love.  Perhaps Pink’s wisdom sums it well.  In her song, ‘Try,’ she sings: “Where there is desire, there is gonna be a flame / Where there is a flame, someone’s gonna get burned / But just because it burns doesn’t mean you’re gonna die / You gotta get up and try.”

Peter was broken by love.  How much more wonderful for you and me that God, the author and lover of souls, would so love us that we find ourselves weeping and laughing, distressed and refreshed, in heaviness and set free, all at the same time.

……….

Whatever happened to Charles Brown and Franz Stigler, you ask?  Brown got married, had two daughters, worked for the State Department and eventually retired to Florida.  Shortly after retirement, he began to have nightmares about that incident with the German fighter pilot. Wanting to find him, he asked around at pilot’s reunions.  He put out an ad in a German newsletter for former Luftwaffe pilots, telling his story and asking if anyone knew anything.

On January 18, 1990, Brown got a letter in the mail.  It read:

“Dear Charles, All these years I wondered what happened to that B-17.  Did she make it or not?”

It was Franz Stigler.  In 1953, he moved to Vancouver.  In the letter, he told Brown he’d be in Florida that summer and, his words, “it sure would be nice to talk about our encounter.”

As the years went on, their acquaintanship became a friendship.  One time, the former members of that B-17 crew assembled a reunion and invited Stigler as guest of honor.  There, they put on a slide show of all the children and grand-children and great-grand-children who were born, all because Stigler didn’t shoot.  Their wives became friends, as well, and Charlie and Franz went on regular fishing outings.

Charles and Jackie Brown, from left, with Hiya and Franz Stigler

The war cost Stigler nearly everything; as I mentioned earlier, of the 28,000 Luftwaffe pilots, only 1,200 survived the war.  They were orphans to their own cause and country; no one to talk to, no one to commiserate with and, as in Franz’s case, not even his own brother remaining.  For Stigler, there was nothing redeeming about the war.  Nothing except that B-17 he let go.  Stigler’s and Brown’s reunion was not only profound but salvific.  At long last, after too many generations of others making war, they had the opportunity to write their life’s score.  When they did, they let love win.

A love, it should be noted, which broke them both.  At one of their earlier meetings, Stigler was asked what he thought of Brown.  In heavily accented English, straining to fight back tears, he said: “I love you, Charlie.”  Sometime later, Stigler gave a book about German fighter jets to Brown, knowing that both of them were country kids who loved, when they were boys, to read about planes.  In the inside cover, Stigler wrote an inscription:

“In 1940, I lost my only brother as a night fighter. On the 20th of December, 4 days before Christmas, 1943 I had the chance to save a B-17 from her destruction, a plane so badly damaged it was a wonder that she was still flying.

The pilot, Charlie Brown, is for me as precious as my brother was.

Thanks Charlie.

Your Brother,

Franz”

In 2008, they died within months of one another.  Stigler was 92.  Brown was 87.

Franz Stigler, on left, with fishing buddy Charlie Brown

Love broke them, permanently, irreparably, wonderfully.  Loving and being loved in that way wasn’t easy, I’m sure, and it brought its own hurts and pains, its own heart-heaviness and distress, its own suffering and sorrow.

And, I’m also certain, it must’ve felt so good.

Be willing to be loved, then, like Peter and Charlie and Franz.  Be willing to be so broken by love so God is, in fact, re-making you.  Be willing to be distressed by God’s love, for surely it means you’ll find yourself in prayer crying pain and joy, all at once.  And it’ll feel so very good.  Just because it burns doesn’t mean you’re gonna die.

Not because, but when you’ve let go

When we’re first introduced to Thomas in the Gospel of John, Jesus is preparing to go to Bethany, the suburb of Jerusalem where his close friends Lazarus and Mary and Martha lived.  Lazarus has died and Jesus is preparing to go, in his words, “so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”(11:4)  Most of the disciples urge Jesus to stay put, to avoid Jerusalem, to let the tensions cool down.  Otherwise, they fear what will happen, and they’re pretty sure it’ll involve death.  But Thomas speaks up, saying “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”(11:16)  Thomas is bold, courageous, fearless, and strong, at least strong-willed.  Where the others are timid and scared, Thomas is undaunted.

Fast forward a few chapters, to the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel of John, and you’ll meet Jesus in the middle of a long farewell speech to his followers and friends.  “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says.  “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”  (The New Revised Standard Version gives the more accurate translation – “dwelling places” – but many of us like the King James’ Version of at least this one verse a lot better:  “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.”)  “And you know the place to where I am going,” Jesus goes on, explaining that he’s going to prepare a place for us and that he’ll lead us there, in time.

This sounds wonderfully reassuring to our ears, but imagine how it sounded to Jesus’ disciples back then.  They didn’t want him to die.  They didn’t want the movement to end.  They expected to help him bring about the Kingdom of God on earth.  Like students in a classroom, they were probably very confused, even more worried now that he was telling them to not worry.  But no one speaks up, that is, no one except Thomas.  Thomas states the obvious, “Lord, we do not know where you are going,” he says, bluntly. “How can we know the way?”(14:5)  Thomas is unafraid to speak his mind, bold and unassuming.

And then this chapter, John 20, a famous story which has ever since made ‘Thomas’ synonymous with ‘doubt.’  Thomas tells his friends that he doesn’t believe they’ve seen the Lord, and that he won’t believe until he can see it himself, until he can put his own finger in Jesus’ scars.

Why would Thomas believe?  The other ten didn’t believe, themselves, until Jesus showed up in their midst, and even then they didn’t recognize him.  It wasn’t until he showed them his pierced side and the marks of the nails in his hands that they recognized him, and believed it was, in fact, their now-Risen Lord. Thomas wasn’t there, so why would he believe?

We’ve gotten so carried away with this one snapshot of Thomas that we forget the larger picture.  He’s everything leadership consultants tell us to be.  Thomas is bold, courageous, fearless and strong.  He’s a natural-born leader and a good one, at that.  Thomas has everything we’re told we need to have if we want to succeed or win friends or influence people, or everything we wish we had within.

And yet we keep calling him Doubting Thomas, focusing on that one episode – an episode that’s perfectly, ordinarily human, I might add.

Every year, I suppose, we are supposed to say something profound about doubt.  If that’s what you’re expecting, I have to disappoint.  I have nothing profound or lasting or moving to say about doubt, except for what I consider a basic, shameless truth: Doubt is.  It’s there and it’ll always be there.  It’s part of a faith life. I’ve got plenty of doubts and I’m sure you do, too.  Doubt will always rub up against belief, and belief will always challenge doubt, and those two – doubting and believing – will be for ever locked into a wrestling match in all things in life.  (And let me add that I’m also glad to be part of a tradition in which I can say this, openly.  In my reading this week, I came across a sermon preached by an evangelical pastor who said what I just did – doubt happens and I, too, have doubts – but he included a footnote in which he explained those apparently off-the-cuff remarks and stated that, after the sermon, an elder of the church pulled him aside and said something like, “Now, Pastor, you can go around saying such things…”)  Sometimes, though, the honest truth is the best one, at least the best at which to begin.  Doubt and belief are powerful forces, and they’ll continue in you.

But the longer we keep talking about doubt, either excusing it or making it sound poignant or challenging it, the more we miss the point.  This story isn’t about doubting or believing. It’s about faith, and that’s another order of things, entirely.

Let me explain by way of a story.

You don’t go to divinity school or seminary unless you’re serious about training for the ministry or you’re really interested in having all your presumptions and assumptions and faith-claims laid out naked before others and questioned and challenged.  For me, I’m glad I studied in a ministry program in an academic divinity school because I feel I got the best of both worlds – serious preparation for ministry in an ecumenical context as well as a chance to be interrogated by and rub against the challenges of a great secular university, a chance to not let my faith statements rest, simply, on pietistic niceties or baseless claims of belief, a chance to both re-ground and challenge belief in order to develop something more, something I’d call faith.  But some people don’t like to have their belief system tested.  Some people are quite happy with having faith be, for them, a series of statements of what they believe.  After my first year, and after many first years in seminaries and divinity schools, a number of students dropped out.  After a long program, some students are so changed from who they were when they first enrolled, as well. Seminary or divinity school is not a hard thing to do, by and large – you have to learn languages and read books and write and talk a lot – but the hardships are on the inside, and for some that’s truly hard.

A book that was something of a required initial read for anyone entering the University of Chicago Divinity School is Martin Gardner’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Flight of Peter Fromm.  Published in 1973 and set at that divinity school in the late 1930’s, the novel features the transformation of the fictional Peter Fromm, a young, believing, Christian evangelist wanna-be from the oil fields of Oklahoma who ventures into that great secular university’s divinity school to take on the heart of liberal theology, itself – all of which is the first step in Peter’s life’s campaign to win the hearts of America for Jesus Christ.  Peter is bright but naïve, intelligent but with an agenda driven by evangelical theology, gifted but unrooted.  The story, overall, is about his transformation, but it’s also about a man’s breakdown and faith’s remodeling.

Early in the book, while he’s still a good believer, there’s a passage that’s long spoken to me, especially as relates to Thomas in our New Testament. It’s a scene from a chapter in which Peter’s dating a Catholic girl named Angelina.

“…Peter lingered for a moment to peer through the gate’s iron grillwork at the large stone statue of Saint Thomas that stands in front of the church’s entrance.  It was dusk and the Saint’s face was in deep purple shadow.  A powdery snow was clinging to his head and shoulders and to the arm outstretched as if to touch the wounds of Christ.

‘I am his brother,’ Peter said in low tones.

‘What do you mean?’  Angelina had never read the Gospels.  If someone had asked her who Saint Thomas was, she would not have known how to answer.

‘He refused to believe the Lord had risen from the dead,’ said Peter.  ‘He refused to believe until he could put his finger in the nail prints or rest his hand on the wound made by the soldier’s spear.’

‘Did he ever do it?’

‘No, when he saw Jesus he believed.  That was when Christ said to him, ‘Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed.  Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.’’ Peter’s voice had a curious ring.  ‘It was the last of the beatitudes.’

Puzzled and a little more frightened, she studied the statue more carefully through the softly falling flakes.  ‘Why are you like him?’

‘Because,’ Peter answered desolately, his words blowing clouds of whiteness into the freezing air, ‘I’m not sure I believe the story about Thomas.’”

“I’m not sure I believe the story about Thomas,” Peter says.  At times throughout life I could’ve and probably wanted to say the same.  I’m not sure I believe the story about Thomas.  I’m not sure I believe he couldn’t and wouldn’t believe even after his friends told him they’d seen the Risen Lord.  It seems so strange, so unpredictable, so odd that someone with such boldness and courage and inner strength, someone exactly like Thomas, couldn’t, wouldn’t believe.  It seems, to us, that the trick to doing something or becoming something is to will it, to want it, to make space in your life for it.  Want to lose weight?  Do it, then.  Want to acquire a new skill?  Get to it.  Want to be a better believer, a more faithful Christian?  What are you waiting for?  Start praying more frequently, attending more regularly, resisting more forcefully.

But what if it’s not at all up to us?  What if the big things in life, the stuff that really matters, isn’t in our power or control at all?

I suspect that’s the case.  And I fear that the longer we keep pretending that things might be in our power, that the secret to faith, for instance, has something to do with doubt or belief, the further we get from the truth.   For the truth of the matter is that the story of faith is not about our searching for God, our yearning and our hoping and our desires, as good and well-founded as they may be.  Even if the desire to please God, as Thomas Merton once famously prayed, may in fact be pleasing to God, it’s not entirely satisfactory to our Creator.  The story of theology and, in particular, our faith is not at all about our searching for God.  It’s about God searching for us.

I’d like to say that we need to let go of worrying about belief and thinking about doubt but that, in itself, is still on you, that still requires your initiative.  I’d like to tell you to practice letting go, to practice as an Easter celebration no longer trying to be a better person or a more faithful Christian.  Practice ending practices.

But the truth is that we can’t do this, not entirely on our own.

Caravaggio’s (1570 – 1610) famous “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” features the Apostle’s right forefinger nearly halfway into Jesus’ side!

What we’re talking about is simply being in front of God, naked and vulnerable and you.

After all, I believe, that’s the real story of Thomas.  Even though so many artistic depictions of this scene have, over the centuries, featured Thomas actually touching Jesus’ wounds, I don’t see that happening, not in the text at least.  True, Thomas said that he wouldn’t believe until he touched the marks, but nowhere does it say he actually did it once Jesus appeared.  No, when Thomas stopped searching and fretting and doubting and believing and God found him, after all, just as when God finds you, all of that other stuff dissolves and drifts away, and you and I are left face to face with the One who knows us more intimately than we, even, know ourselves.  It’s in those rare and beautiful moments, then, that we, like Thomas, find ourselves having dropped everything we were once concerned with and, together, utter in our hearts the greatest confession of faith made in the pages of the New Testament, “My Lord and my God!”

Remember how he told you

As a boy, Tolstoy and two friends put together a club.  They called it the White Polar Bear Club because the only membership requirement was that a boy had to stand in a corner for 30 minutes and not think about a white bear.  Memory researchers say we’ve all got a bit of the White Bear Syndrome.  Close your eyes, if you don’t believe me, and whatever you do do not think about a white bear.

Intentional thought suppression was once tested in a Harvard psychology lab.  Participants were told they were going to sit for five minutes and describe, in words, what’s on their mind; speak their stream of consciousness. They were randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group was told they could think about a white bear. The others were told they could not think of a white bear.  They would press a button if or when they thought of a white bear.  Additionally, their stream of consciousness utterances were recorded and the number of times they said “white bear” were counted. Participants who were told to not think about bears actually mentioned it less than the others, but all of them pressed the button at about equal rates.  If the goal is to stop thinking about something, it’s hardly effective.

Also interesting was a follow-up test with those who, in the first test, were told to not think about bears.  In a second test, they were told they could now think of white bears.  Those folks – first told to not think about something, then told they could think about that thing – were off the charts in mentioning white bears and pushing the button, much more so than either group in the first study.  Suppressing a thought actually leads, in time, to its subsequent over-indulgence.  Someone trying to quit drinking only thinks about alcohol; someone trying to lose weight lets himself have just a nibble of a chocolate bunny’s ear and winds up devouring the whole thing.

We humans are tricky animals, crafty, and pretty good at self-deceit.  I’ve always thought the Apostle Paul was describing me when he said to the Romans, “I don’t understand my own actions.”(Rom. 7)  “I do not do what I want,” Paul wrote, “but I do the very thing I hate.”  What do to about it?  God “gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul wrote in another letter, so you and I should “stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” (1 Cor. 15)

This is true.  When life besets us and gets us down, when the anxiety is too much to bear and the worries are real, when pain is acute or life’s direction gone missing, the story of our faith is that the victory’s already won.  For us, then, we hold on, we stand firm.

This is true, but it’s the type of truth Christians know a lot better as mystery than fact.  For the fact is that the games of life and the culture of death not only exist outside but also tear us apart, within – desires are inflated, wills are set in competition, and I continue to do the things I do not want to do and which I know aren’t good.  Christians celebrate resurrection, new life, but the context of this gift is death.

We labor but sometimes, contrary to Paul, it feels like we do so in vain.  I can only imagine that’s what it felt to those women who headed out early on this first day of the week, carrying heavy sacks of ointment and spices.  They were doing what they knew to do, laboring through life.  Like them, we are also good at finding tricks to get through the day: when life gets overturned, we make lemonade, some say, or bury ourselves in work or master a craft.  Mind over matter.  A study performed at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, in fact, suggested we’ve got some capacity to exercise mind over matter.  From an article in The Week: Twenty particpants were arranged into two groups and told to search for an item.  One-half of them were allowed to repeat, out loud, the name of the thing they were looking for.  The other half could not say the name of the thing.  On average, the group speaking the name of the thing found it quicker than the group which was silent.  Similar studies of children show that those who talk themselves through the process of tying their shoes do so faster than those who don’t.  We have the capacity, some capacity, to exercise mind over matter, to accomplish tasks, to labor well, to get through the day.

But that’s not what resurrection looks like.  Just laboring is not new life.  Breaking the culture of death and attaining new life is the goal, but it’s truly hard.  Phase two of the University of Wisconsin study is where it gets more interesting.  Again, from The Week:   “Researchers carried out a ‘virtual shopping task’ for common grocery store items, like Jell-O or Coke. Just as in the first phase, some of the participants were asked to repeat the item’s name to themselves while looking. But this time the results were ‘more complex.’ …Talkers were able to find familiar objects like Coke much quicker. But for less familiar objects, such as the slightly more ambiguous Speed Stick deodorant, the mutterers actually took much longer.  Why? ‘Speaking to yourself isn’t always helpful,’” one researcher said, “’If you don’t know what an object looks like, saying its name can have no effect or can actually slow you down.’”

If you don’t know what an object looks like, or if the events of life have so worn down the truth you once received, or if you’ve already made yourself believe there is no hope, just simply saying it has no effect on you.  In fact, it might even distract you, slow you down, get in your way.  Truly, I wonder how some of the words we regularly toss around in the church actually sound to people, to you.  What does resurrection mean?  What does new and unending life imply?  What does redemption say, to you, today?  Are you hearing something or, just as likely and for no apparent fault of your own, do these words not only sound empty, vacant, vacuous but are they a distraction, obscuring your path to wholeness?

The way the Easter story is told, then, is precisely for you, you who are tricky animals, you human beings.  The gospels do not describe the resurrection.  They tell only of its faint aftermath, the evidence of the action of God: a stone unrolled, a tomb empty, a promise kept.  Resurrection is a matter of faith, and faith is born in a place within the lives of perfectly ordinary women and men, people who can and do, from time to time, delude and trick ourselves.   Like those women we forget and lose sight, we alter memories and, as science has shown, we are actually a whole lot better at driving ourselves further from the truth than we are at doing what people say when you lose something: just stop thinking about it and you’ll find it.

That’s not what the angel said in the garden.  He said “Remember.”  “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man will rise again.”  And they remembered what he said and that he said it because they remembered how.  They remembered, at that moment, not in their quickly deceiving minds but in their well-hewn hearts.  For resurrection cannot be thought or learned.  Redemption isn’t something some are better at because they pray harder or attend more regularly.  It’s a gift and is retrieved in remembering, in coming back together and returning to life.  In that moment, in that garden, those women remembered how Jesus embraced them and blessed them, how he took bread and broke it, how he welcomed sinners and loved the outcast, how gently he touched them, in a place deeper than words or meanings or thinking.

That place is the harbor of faith, and it is there in you.  It’s been there all along.

Human Flourishing

The new Archbishop of Canterbury is giving a lesson in ethics.  What he’s actually talking about is changing the way the church functions.

ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY Justin Welby

Yesterday, the Archbishop didn’t zero in on the political mess the Church of England’s gotten itself into.  The pundits on the sidelines are striving to get him to say something about women bishops or gay marriage.  Welby mentioned several times his own “fear and trembling,” but I think he showed remarkable strength in not talking about those things – in not chattering on about the church in self-reflexive ways, focusing with profound insularity on theological method (as his predecessor did); in not taking a prophetic stance toward the issues of the world while ignoring the clutter of his own spiritual house (as our Episcopal Church, I’m afraid, too quickly does).  Archbishop Welby showed great steel in turning our textbooks back to Aristotle and Jesus, in focusing our attention on a simple message: the church must be in the business of human flourishing.

In his inaugural sermon, Welby argued that the goal of the Body of Christ should be to enable human persons to flourish: in his words, to “make space for our own courage to be liberated, for God to act among us and for human beings to flourish.”  The church has taken prophetic stances over the years, Welby acknowledged, positions which became manifest in social campaigns – freeing slaves and ensuring the safety of factory workers, among others.

Similar issues confront human society in the 21st century, he noted, but his analysis, interestingly, didn’t go from cause to cause.  Rather, he quickly moved the conversation back to traditional Christian social thought.

Dissapointing media pundits and stumping secular critics, Welby’s message appeared, at first, to be about our work, our message, our cause and then, just as quickly, became a message of God. “Fear imprisons us and stops us being fully human,” he preached. “Uniquely in all of human history Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the one who as living love liberates holy courage. …Courage is released in a society that is under the authority of God, so that we may become the fully human community of which we all dream.”

Early Christians adopted from Plato and Aristotle the concept that there is an end to which all human striving should be directed, a goal which is good for its own sake.  The Greek word is eudaimonia, often translated as happiness or flourishing.  In the Aristotelian worldview, eudaimonia is entirely egoistic: an individual’s self interest is to flourish, so a particular individual’s good is to flourish for the sake of her own good.  That obviously wouldn’t do for the early Christian community whose Lord commanded them to love one another, so the Christianized concept of eudaimonia also had to do with mercy, justice, forgiveness, and community.  Human flourishing from a Christian point of view is to strive towards the only goal which is good unto itself.  That we call the Kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God involves people, but what’s good for people is not necessarily a good unto itself.  That’s not an ultimate good.  The kingdom of God has a church but what’s good for the church isn’t necessarily a good in and of itself.  Better not chatter on about the church with incessant insularity.  The kingdom of God is expressed, from time to time, in our social campaigns to make this world a more just and equitable and liveable place, but those causes are not necessarily the same as the reign of God.  Best not confuse our social politics and theology.  If we want to understand what it means to flourish, we’ve got to understand what it is to be of God, firstly, and to have our actions and words speak Him.

Although this is deep within our tradition, it’s also a new teaching for the church.  It’s hard for many to understand, let alone embrace it.  We, the church, allowed secular society to put us in the center of their world – first it was Constantine, then Charlemagne, then in America our own interpretation of the Bill of Rights.  For centuries, we thought Christendom spoke for itself.  Even when it’s been waning these past several decades we tried to bolster the buttresses, talking on and on about ourselves and our self-proclaimed mission and our business.

That’s all falling apart.  Not the Way of Jesus, mind you.  Not Christianity.  Just the force of the predominately institutionalized shell.

And that’s why Justin Welby is the right man for the job, the right man, that is, at this moment.  While bishop of Durham, he seemed uniquely able to speak the truth plainly.  In an address in April 2012 to the Anglican Alliance for Development, Bishop Welby pointedly said, “The question that faces the church is that of what is human flourishing, good news, amidst the deep poverty…and utter spiritual bankruptcy and increasing material poverty?”

In that address, Welby named a profound truth: “Our good news,” he argued, “must be unique, because the radicality of the gospel call[s] us to a sense of what we are doing and saying utterly different from all other groups.”  This can be unsettling.  For those who have grown accustomed to Christendom this is a difficult teaching to bear.  Yet almost automatically, Welby’s mind readily goes beyond insular theological methodology – a threat to those hiding inside the church – and criticizes the way of the world from nothing more, nothing less than the Gospel of Christ.  To his credit, he already knows that world.  When he mentioned “suspicion of the NGO industry, its thousands of employees and the tendency to be as donor dependant as the recipients of aid, with whom one is drawn in a grim dance,” Welby quickly added: “I know, I ran one.”

Authenticity is the litmus test these days, which is both an opportunity and challenge.  We live in a time in which our message is heard only so long as the audience knows, already, the depth and quality of its source.  It’s no longer sufficient to make grand speeches without mobilizing the People of God.  Nor can we shirk from the obligation to speak a word of life in the public square; now, however, it requires the harder work of turning the hearts and minds and lives of those already among the body to influence those not yet.  The new Archbishop put it as a question:  “As Christians,” he asked, “are we simply a spiritual bit of the same tribe or, as self-proclaimed disciples of Christ, how is what we bring good news?”  Reading Micah 6:8 (“do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with God…”) and Romans 12:1-2 (“…do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds”), Welby reminded:

“the language of our good news is not GDP, output and so forth, though they are part of the means. It is human flourishing in a context of love. The tools of our good news [are] the unique ones of reconciliation and peace, with its fellow travellers of generosity, community and self-giving love. All aid outside the context of the grace of God leads to the abuse of power and the creation of dependency. So we are called not merely to do, but to be. The inner motivation matters as much as the outer.”

These days anyone and everyone can see directly inside, beyond the stuff we’ve projected in order to protect us – our beautiful churches and stately liturgy, our pomp and circumstance, our cathedrals and order, our tradition and customs.  Real human flourishing is an inside job, and that matters a great deal.