Faith

The Mystagogy of Easter : The Doubt of Thomas the Twin

The lectionary each season of Easter brings us back to the same texts. Lent has a similar structure but there is a little more variation between each year in the three year cycle, while for Easter we read the same  passages from the Book of Acts and the Gospel of John.

This all is related to Baptism: preparing for the waters of Baptism at Easter and then unpacking the meaning of living in our new life given at baptism.  The teaching that prepares one for baptism is called catechesis and the teaching of the meaning of the baptismal life is called mystagogy, teaching about what had remained hidden before one gained sight in the waters of baptism.  We must learn to see.

The texts for the Second Sunday of Easter direct us to sight and touch.  The author of the epistle of John claims the reality he is speaking of and witnessing to is what he and the other apostles not only saw but handled. And of course the Apostle Thomas famously says I will not believe unless I touch the wound in his side and holes in his hands.

We can get caught up in Thomas’ doubt.  When so many Christians act so very certain, Thomas becomes the patron saint of those who aren’t always so sure.  This use of  this story of the Resurrection of Christ allows many to have the faith of Thomas in the face of the absolutism in which doubt is seen as akin to darkness and thus a sign of God’s absence in a distorted interpretation of 1 John 1:7.  Yet, we shouldn’t settle into the comfort of this interpretation, which still focuses on the doubt rather than the encounter.

1 John 1 is about the tangibility of the truth which the Twelve Apostles handed on and which has come down to us.  They saw and handled.  Thomas, an Apostle needs to handle his faith. While, Jesus’ words of blessing to those who believe without the tangibility given to the Twelve and the disciples, still affirms that we have faith in  something that was visible and tangible: that is in the physical and not just ethereal, spiritual or psychological, but something that affects the whole of us and the universe.

1 John 1 expands upon the story of Thomas the Twin: It invites us into faith beyond mere assent.  We misread the testimony of the epistle of John if we think it says just accept what I say because I say I handled and saw.  No, this witness of seeing and handling is an invitation into the tangibility of the faith of the Church, the Body of Christ.  We are invited into the actualization of the Blessing Christ bestows on those who will hear Thomas’s story and his encounter with the Risen body of Jesus Christ, still bearing the wounds of his passion.  This is real, no fantasy, no story to make us feel better. The doubt of Saint Thomas the apostle tells us there’s no point to go along with it all if one has never had the encounter with God in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.

If someone tells me they don’t believe because they have never encountered God, or experienced the reality of Christ (and especially if they say this as one who had been formerly a Christian, as one merely assenting to propositional belief), I think of Thomas, and I say yes, there is nothing I can say to you – mere assent to belief you haven’t encountered isn’t the faith of the Church.  All I can do is witness to my own encounter within the realm of the faith of the Church that has been handed down from Thomas the Twin and the other eleven Apostles, who handled and saw this mystery. Through their witness handed down through the centuries I too have handled and seen.

Good Friday: Just another day in Post-Christendom

Yesterday, I had an appointment with someone, in the conversation my being pastor came up (it wasn’t about anything church or religiously affiliated), but that we met on Maundy Thursday, nor that today was Good Friday came up in the conversation.  The person whom I met seemed to have no sense that I as a Western Christian was in the midst of our high holy days, and that Sunday was Easter.

As I traveled to the Oratory’s Maundy Thursday service with a member of the Oratory, the business of the City was unchanged, people coming home from work as any other day.  I went out briefly today and the feeling is the same.  This week I’m running on a different time than many of those who are about me.  In this post Christian and post-Christendom world we have these strange remnants like Christmas, and people talk about the war on Christmas, and of course the Media has been putting out the requisite biblical or Jesus stories (though even that seems less prevalent this year, than in past years.)

This isn’t a complaint.  But it does feel like I’m going about this celebration in secret. Part of this is that the week has been less intense for me since, the Oratory will only have held a Maundy Thursday service.  We are going together to other congregations for Good Friday and for the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday services.  I have more time to see that many others, some of whom may be Christian aren’t as taken up in to this the central holiday of Holy Week and the Three Days.  I’m also more attuned I guess that for many Easter Sunday will come and that will be that.  The center of our faith will be a blip on events that fill up their lives.  That this is so for the Christmas and Easter crowd is fine, what I find more problematic is when due to a variety of factors otherwise committed Christians won’t take the time to sit with the passion, death and Insurrection of Christ.

Even so, I understand.  This week has, as I said above, has been less focused then in previous years where we had a dramatic liturgy of Palm?Passion Sunday with Palms and processions and dramatic reading of the passion Gospel, and having the full three days celebrated with one or two other congregations.  This year I will be celebrating the three days but this week hasn’t been so consuming.

This isn’t a complaint. There is something of a truth in that Holy Week seems to be something barely noticed and passing by without remark.

What God did in Jesus of Nazareth isn’t obvious.  What was happening on that Friday in ancient Roman occupied Palestine, was just another execution of yet another failed resistance to Roman rule.  Yet another “messiah” crucified.  Move along and make a few snarky comments, nothing more, life goes on.

Tonight, I along with many other Christians will adore this once common implement of execution.  Granted it has other symbolic resonances, yet at base we adore tonight what should have been failure and the end of the story. We do something strange, because what we adore is hidden from view. The significance of these three days is almost to common, or rather like a treasure hiden in a field, it isn’t obvious or remarkable on the surface.

This is just another day, nothing special, life will go on.  Yet, we assert something remarkable happened and happens.  Something slowly is transforming the ordinary into something more, revealing the inner beauty and reality of the ordinary as what is quite extra-ordinary. And this began in a torture and death of one particular human being, a seemingly unremarkable and ordinary human being on the edge of a great empire over 2000 years ago.

 

The Remnants of Christendom among Revivalists and Pietists

Recently it has come to light that Holly Hobby Lobby who posed in a photo with automatic riffle in one hand and the bible in the other, proclaiming her love of God, country, guns, and “family values,” had an adulterous affair with a video editor fo the Tea Party News.  hollyfisherI’m not surprised.  Not because I think all Tea Party members and conservatives are hypocrites but because this person’s Christianity is a remnant of common sort of Christianity in Christendom.

More to the point, I’m not surprised because Holly Hobby Lobby’s Christianity, at the height of Christendom, would have been seen by many (including my forebears) at most as a place to begin the call to conversion and repentance. We don’t often talk about how Christendom functioned to keep people in the orbit  of the Church and Gospel (granted with other less positive effects).  Without Christendom revivalist and pietist call to conversion would have been meaningless.

Excursus: “Church” is a tricky term, and discussions of this sort often fail to define the term.  For the purposes of this post I’m combining a sacramental and pietist understanding of Church. Thus Church is both an entity, the Body of Christ, that transcends time and space and made up of the baptized as the body of Christ, and this body of Christ is best identified by those who are truly converted by and to Christ.  And while were at it: I see “Christendom” as the cultural, societal and political space where the religion of Christianity is dominant and provides a cultural and political supportive environment for the Church. I see the case of Holly Hobby Lobby as a way to flesh out these two definitions in a time of post-Christendom.

Let me give an account of Church, Christianity and Christendom, from a pietist perspective, and specifically Lutheran pietism.  In Lutheran Christendom, as in most forms of Christendom, the state made Christendom possible through making citizenship and being Christian equivalent. In Lutheran Christendom to be Christian was to be Lutheran. ( I know your hackles are all up, but lets let this be a lesson in history for now.)  Pietists tell the story of the State sponsored Christianity as a dead Christianity.  Pietism is in part a critique of dead dogma, and lifeless faith.  As we tell it, Pietists came along and brought the vitality of the Gospel and encounter with God into dead Lutheran orthodoxy.  What this early negative evaluation of Christendom doesn’t recognize is the ways in which Christendom and Christianity of  Lutheran Orthodoxy and State church brought people into the orbit of conversion and encounter with Christ, which then the Pietists could offer.  Pietism fails to recognize it’s own dependence upon Christendom.  Because of Christendom (and that means also dead orthodoxy)  Pietist didn’t have to explain who Jesus Christ was, nor who the God of Jesus Christ was and is.  In the Lutheran state churches since to be a citizen was to be a Christian, one had to know the catechism, the creed, and Lords Prayer.  We pietists, to use the tired phrase, brought head knowledge into the heart, but without Christendom, and the role of the state in making it’s citizens Christian, there would have been know mere “head” knowledge of the Gospel, God , and Christ.

 Pietist and other revivalist Christian groups in Christendom assumed and made use of the common cultural religious assumptions of being Christian, and called  conversion what was, from one point of view,  simply a deepening the Christian commitment and faith of the Christian citizens of Christendom.

What happens then when the fabric of cultural assumptions of Christendom are in tatters or non-existent, and a certain group of Christians, and Christian leaders, still seek to claim that to truly be a citizen of a particular state, one should claim a Christian heritage?  My answer is you get people like Holly Hobby Lobby, who through their own actions show they haven’t a clue what being a member of the Church is truly about, let alone what it would mean to follow Jesus Christ or to have the Mind of Christ, as we Pietists might say.

Granted in the United States Christendom was perpetuated and created through less overt political means.  In the U.S. Christendom was the result of cooperation between various Christian groups that came to be understood as denominations.  So, we still need to account for how we went from Revivalists and Pietists calling for deep commitment and conversion to Holly Hobby Lobby’s identity without conversion and change of being and mind.holly-fisher From the revivalist and “evangelical” view the culturally established and powerful denominations represented the domain of dead and nominal Christianity, as long as these “dead” denominations, the “mainline”, were willing to do the work of maintaining Christendom (if one wonders what I’m talking about a remnant of this reality is still found in the denominational affiliations of the United States Congress, and that oaths are still made upon the Bible).*  As the dominant mainline denominations began to embrace a more secular and pluralist view of the U.S. slowly abandoning Christendom (most likely unwittingly, or so puzzlement over their loss of relevance indicates) Revivalist and Pietist denominations were gaining ascendancy and began to take up the mantle of preserving Christendom, that is America as a “Christian nation.”  It’s not surprising then, that some members of these denominations would come to assume Christian identity as a heritage, and not as a break with the dead identity of the Christian citizen.

Revivalist and Pietist Christian language has now been put to use in shoring up Christendom.  Strangely then conversion for some results in being passionately patriotic.  Before the mainline abandoned Christendom, the revivalists and pietist could leave aside the question of Christian identity and American identity. We could call to conversion and new life in Christ, and such calls wouldn’t necessarily call into question ones American Citizenship nor even have to challenge patriotism. Christendom benefited from more vibrant faith as long as such a faith wasn’t too radical in questioning of the equivalence of citizen and Christian (we know such groups as the Anabaptist or the radical reformers, Mennonites, the Brethren and Society of Friends (Quakers) were seen as trouble makers.).  However, the pietist faith didn’t need to couch itself in patriotic trappings, since cultural assumptions of the Christendom had that covered.  If conversion led some to take up activism to correct the ills in society, well these reformers were working for a better Christians society that all tacitly agreed was a good thing (not to deny that these pietist and revivalist reformers were at times opposed, often by members and leaders of the “mainline”.)

Back to Holly Hobby Lobby: Such a form of Christianity comes out of a pietist and revivalist faith become guardian of Christendom. However, as such it is no different from the “dead faith” of Lutheran orthodoxy. My forbears would recognized it for what it is, at best the beginning, the spiritual space in which the call to conversion could take hold, at worst it is a dead, useless, and hypocritical faith.  As such Such a Christianity can hardly be called faith, and can’t claim to know much if anything of the Mind of Christ or the Church.

* Also, I can’t recommend highly enough Martin E. Marty’s book Righteous Empire: the Protestant experience in America for one account of this reality before and during the Modernist/Fundamentalist split and before the Mainline abandoned Christendom to support a more pluralist and secularist societal fabric. 

Longing for Justice in Absence: #StayWokeAdvent

WIN_20141130_143419O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence–
as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil– to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!  (Isaiah 64:1, 2)WIN_20141130_143444

This cry for God to act from the lectionary  for the First Sunday of Advent seems very fitting.  Calling on god to tear open the heavens.  Tear down the barrier between heaven and earth that keeps the kingdom from coming and God’s will from being done on earth as it is in heaven.

But what if this has happened?  What if the heavens have been torn open and God has come down? (As depicted in these depictions of heaven opening up)  In Advent what we wait for, what we are awake to is that God has come in the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth.WIN_20141130_143332

The tearing of the heavens and God coming in justice happened. It happened in a very strange and nearly imperceptible way.  The nations, the powers, have been shaken.  Yet we can be unaware, live as though all is lost.  Admittedly in times like these, it doesn’t seem like this story has much relevance or meaning.  If true what good has it done for those who continue to suffer injustice, oppression and death.

Isaiah a few verses below the words above, wonders why God doesn’t act as in the time of Egypt and Israels deliverance from the oppression of  Pharaoh and Egypt, the empire and power of the day. But think with me on that story:

Did Israel’s freedom from enslavement and oppression at the hands of the state power and government come because Pharoah gradually made reforms and improved the conditions of the Hebrews?  Did the justice Isaiah recalls and longs for come from Pharaoh, or even with Pharaoh’s help and coöperation?  No, it was wrested from pharaoh by God.

But in a sense God remained a part from humanity and creation in that moment.  God crushes the power of oppression destroying its ability to exact its legal penalties, and it’s justice.  It was fearsome and violent, and at Mount Sinai the Israelites weren’t so sure what to make of all this shaking.

But when we speak of God’s advent, we are no longer speaking of the shock and Awe that Isaiah is longing for in the tearing open of the heavens and God coming down, yet even so the heavens have been torn open and God has come down.

WIN_20141130_143456It is perhaps worth noting that this didn’t happen only once, God tore open the heavens in the incarnation, and then again as the Spirit came upon those followers of Jesus, to form the Church on Pentecost.

Yet, none of this has brought an end to injustice.  The heavens have been torn open and God descends… and then what… disappears?

Christians, perhaps even the Church, are and have been as much a part of oppression and injustice as working for liberation and justice.

There are questions… is something awakening?

We wait in darkness with not much light.  This is Advent and a place of deep longing.

For now lets sit with heavens torn open and God come down, but seemingly little shaken, and ask what is the source of justice and liberation?  What are we looking for and who will provide it?

 

12 Chapters on Listening and Being Right

Ed. note: after publishing this I recognized  the genre .  It’s the ancient Christian genre of writing on the spiritual life in “chapters”: short paragraphs over which one is too linger in contemplation as one reads but which together form a sustained reflection on a topic.  I’ve now numbered the paragraphs and revised the title of the blog post to reflect this realization.  However, I do not claim to match the wisdom of those who mastered this genre.

1) Listening is a key piece to the cure of souls.  As various controversies rage and people dismiss others views, I believe listening becomes even more important, listening to those who may say things that one finds offensive or even dangerous.

2) Not everyone is in the place to do such listening.  And not every thing said is worth being heard.

3) But listening from the perspective of Spiritual Direction and the Cure of souls isn’t about validation or agreement. Listening in such a view also isn’t about letting one person simply rage or lash out.

4) The listening I’m talking about is giving space to questions.  It is also giving space so that genuine sentiment, faith, and experience can come to the fore.

5) In the Cure of souls it is also listening for the voice of God, in the floundering words of the one speaking.  This spiritual act of care is listening for the lacunae, the gap, the fissure that shows a contradiction, the place of the spiritual illness or blockage in a person’s life.

6) In  listening one can’t seek to make one’s own point or convince the other of the truth.

7) Listening is then an act bounded in love between the one speaking and the one listening.

8) Listening also means responding,  reflecting back, taking time to hear what the other may not hear in their own words.  Listening is interactive, its a negotiation, where the Holy Spirit plays a key and necessary role of illuminating and reviving the soul

9) Listening is seeking the truth through clearing a space where a soul may be lead into the truth by the Holy Spirit.  Listening is being willing to give oneself up to the work of the Spirit.

10) This sort of listening means each time one enters this clearing, one begins again.  Previous conclusions are held lightly, so that the truth of the soul may continue to emerge and come to light.

11) This listening in the cure of souls is the continual abandonment of the sense of having come to the right conclusions and being right so that relationship may emerge and thus the health and wholeness of the soul with whom one sits before God may come to completion and perfection.

12) Listening is accompaniment on the journey of the soul, so that the soul on her journey will have a relationship with, and remain in relationship to the source of life.

Christians Embrace Death and the Particularity and Physicality Of the Gospel

We Christians are anxious about the state of our institutions.  We at the same time want to believe someone has the fix.  So, we make pronouncements.  A number of people including Tony Jones and Brian McLaren have suggested that we are seeing possible end of denominations, others are talking about the decline of particular denominations (such as the Episcopal Church) or groups of denominations (the Mainline), or maybe even the whole kit and caboodle Christianity itself, or even more astounding the Church, is dead or dying.

The reasons given for this  demise are myriad, but they do coalesce around an anxiety that we aren’t or haven’t allowed the Spirit to move and that we are trapped in the institutional and the historical/material manifestations of our faith.  This it seems to me wishing to blame our having bodies, that is those real, actual, physical, architectural manifestations, that aren’t the s{S}pirit.  In a sense what I hear in our anxieties and the various remedies for our demise is the claim that we  are not our bodies.   Which is strange to me.

In college I read Souls and Bodies, a novel about the loss and retention of faith.  As I read it the novels contention was that it was precisely the “spiritual” obsession that denied our bodies that was the reason for the flight from religion.  The characters in the novel longed for cathedral and body to agree in spirituality.    Architecture, institution, body all are spiritual, the crack in our systems of faith and theology is when we dismember ourselves, when our cosmos no longer is imbued with the spiritual.    Religion and faith that can’t bring together body soul and spirit, leave us with corpses and pointless souls wandering in an amorphous and dreary world.  That is at least my impression of the novel 20 years on.  Whether or not it was the author’s intent it is what I took from it, and it spurred me to seek a faith that had form, architecture, institution, and body.

I wonder if our problem is that we are still seeking some essence, some inner spirit that can be decanted into any container.  If this is so then i say we are shrinking from the particularity of God and the church.   It is my conclusion that with all our love for “incarnational” theology we find the actual incarnation of God, in a Jew 2000 years ago, to be a little embarrassing, and possibly just a bit out of date.  We don’t want our future our “destiny” to be tied to that Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, whom we know so little about.  We’d rather create a Jesus in our own image, rather than be confined by a Jew who gathered 12 other Jews around him and sent them out into the world to proclaim the reign of God established by a violent and embarrassing death.

We embrace with difficulty that God is now forever human because, God is forever a 1st century Palestinian Jew who was raised from the dead and is seated on the right hand of God.  We also embrace with difficulty that from the moment of the incarnation God has been gathering together a new humanity through union with this one person jesus of Nazareth, through baptism and eating and drinking bread and wine.

American Christianity (liberal or conservative) tends to  prefer a more generic and American triumphalist universalism.   Actually following a crucified Jewish peasant from the first century Palestine is a bit of lunacy.   Doing so isn’t the way to win friends and influence people, its not guaranteed to gain you access the halls of power to influence the power brokers and leaders of the (free) world.  In fact that Jewish peasant tells us we aren’t suppose to seek power and influence and access, but God’s justice and righteousness first.  The problem for both liberal and conservative Christians is that we believe that justice and transformation of society can only come from in the very least having access to and influence over the power brokers.

Should we be surprised that people may find this all a little too incredible.  Should we be surprised that since Christianity has had access to the power centers for so long and yet used that access not to be open to God’s kingdom but to replace God’s kingdom with our vision of freedom and democracy (liberal or conservative), that people will walk away.  Who needs Christianity if it is simply a version of secular ideologies.  Our universalism our reductions of Christianity to principles, or morals or to social justice, leave no need for a Palestinian 1st century Jew.  Or to make this Jew relevant we ask people to believe something even more incredible, that said Jesus of Nazareth was simply an 21st century populist democrat, or  we ask people to believe in a being that died just so you could accept him into your heart and go on your merry way without a care for the world.

We need to embrace it all.  The messiness, the imperfect way Christians are the body of Christ, and the Jewishness of our God.  The particularity of our material existence is the universal spirituality of Christian faith.  We need architecture, we need art, we need what Christ instituted both sacraments and the historical continuity of  the temple that God is building us into.

We will come to know what reflects this holistic particular universal faith not by reductions and seeking the essential nature of the Spirit, but by seeing that the God who became a Jew a little over 2000 years ago is the God of all, who embraces all, and instituted the Church and is building a temple, which is the new humanity.  Such a vision perhaps simply isn’t compatible with the vision of our age.  In part though that is our fault for we have been proclaiming something else, we have lost who we are, we have sought release from our bodies, so that we could have universal spirit that could appeal to everyone.  This is our demise, this is our death. We are the dry bones and we are finding if we are honest that there is no life outside our body.  Mortal can these bones live?  Lord only you know.   May we prophesy that the spirit return to our dried out wasted away bodies.  May God return to us the flesh we have abandoned.  Our bones can witness to the life of God, but we must prophesy to the breath, and accept our particularity, our mortality.

 

Spiritual Gifts, the Holy Spirit and our Abilities

For Pentecost I preached this sermon.  The sermon emphasizes a certain aspect of Spiritual gifts: namely that they aren’t equivalent to things we do well or like to do.  For instance you don’t have the Spiritual gift of Hospitality because you like to and are good at throwing parties.  To put it another way, having a spiritual gift isn’t the same as being ‘gifted’, as in having a native talent or ability to do X above and beyond other human beings general ability to do X.  What I preached is that Spiritual gifts are about receiving something that isn’t part of one’s native ability or natural inclinations.   The gifting of the Holy Spirit gives us that which take us beyond ourselves.

I have a problem with my sermon: What is summarized above is only part of the story.  Since I was trying to get people to connect with the divine presence in themselves, that stream of water spoken of by Jesus in The Gospel of John, I didn’t explore the connection between our native abilities and gifts and the abilities and gifts received from the divine presence in us, the Holy Spirit.  The only hint I gave that I believed there was some connection between our personal abilities and gifts and the gifts of the Spirit was to emphasize a couple of times that according to Paul gifts were given to each individually.

In my sermon I was seeking  a corrective:  we at times too easily equate a desire or propensity towards something to be our Spiritual gift. Yet,  if take seriously the account of Pentecost in Acts and Paul’s argument in Corinthians the point of being gifted by the Spirit isn’t an aspect of our own effort or ability.  In a sense speaking in tongues and gifts of healing are obvious and thus quintessential Spiritual gifts.  Other Spiritual gifts like hospitality or even discernment could also simply be natural ability or bent, though Paul also speaks of  these as Spiritual gifts.

I didn’t bring it up in my sermon (sermons are limited like that) that I do believe there is a needed discernment of the connection between what has been gifted to us from the Spirit, our personhood and our native abilities and inclinations as persons.

What might be the nature of this discernment?  There are a few things I’d suggest we need to keep in mind and pray about when we have the question of what gifts we have received.

1) As the baptized we have been given the Holy Spirit, in meditation and prayer seeking that flow of life in us is a place to begin.  In this discerning meditation and prayer where in your life, in interactions with others, do you see life springing up both in yourself and in others.  The metaphor of streams of living water for the presence and gifting of the Spirit is to direct our attention to the unexpected places we find life springing up like well watered plants.

2) The Holy Spirit chooses, the Apostle tells us, but also that the Holy Spirit gives to each individually.  While the focus of our gifts isn’t on our native abilities, that the Holy Spirit is God in us and the one who can articulate our deepest longings and desires before God in prayer (Romans 8:26) means that our personality and talents aren’t ignored in the giving of gifts by the Spirit.  I suggest that in discerning one’s gifting one is looking in that space between who you are and the edge of your abilities and inclinations.  This could mean that a gifting of the Spirit takes a natural ability and takes it beyond what one is able to do, or it may offer a means to do something consistent with ones personality but to do something that doesn’t come easy. For instance praying in tongues can be for an extrovert that way to be silent before God and wordless prayer with words, that is a means to meditate for someone who may find regular wordless prayer temperamentally challenging.

3) Paul does connect desire and receiving of gifts.  When in prayer and meditation seeking to know one’s gifting is to seek those places of ones desire.  What do we long for?  Paul seems to even show that in seeking to know the gift one has received that we are to desire certain gifts.  We may find that we aren’t given what we initially desire, again Spiritual gifts do take us beyond ourselves.  Yet, in allowing ourselves to desire good things, which all spiritual gifts are, is key to becoming aware of the gift we have been given by the Spirit.

4) This will require discernment, and talking it out with others whom one trusts.  Spiritual gifts aren’t for our private and personal enrichment, they are how we are to Spiritually relate to other members of the Body of Christ, and the way in which God seeks to bring life to the World.  Therefore the feed back of those close to one: Spiritual counselors and friends are key in discerning what gift one has received.  Again those who are close to us are part of who we are as persons and individuals, they will be able to tell you how they see you fitting together in the Body of Christ.

As I grew in the faith and found my way into the ordered ministry, much of the above discernment happened for me informally and implicitly. Though ordered ministry and office is a different but related thing to the Spiritual gifts, gifting and office also aren’t completely separate.  But that is another post, and a topic that I’m still unclear on myself.  My point though is that this discernment will take time, it also may not always be obvious, or in the moment of a specific conversation where one asks another for feedback on Spiritual gifts.  This process can be those small bits of affirmation, someone  pointing out something one did that one wasn’t even aware one was doing.  There is something organic and fluid to this process, not mechanical or procedural.  And this shouldn’t be surprising because it is about receiving and being the conduit of abundant life, those streams of living water.

 

 

The Meaning of Giving Praise to God

When we praise God for something what are we doing?  When we thank God for a positive outcome and praise God for that outcome what are we meaning?  What are we attributing to God.

These were some of the general questions I recently dealt with in a spiritual direction session with a directee.  Praising God for God’s character made sense, and being thankful also made sense to the directee, but when it came to particularities, things got messy.  So many factors, in becoming healthy, or a healing, who or what is responsible, one’s own body, one’s own initiative in taking health inducing activities?

There is a desire to give thanksgiving and praise, even so the question haunts: for what are we thanking God, and is there reason to praise God for outcome X if we can’t be sure that God is the cause of that outcome?

This anxiety over praise and thanksgiving is in part a fear of idolatry, but also feeling that to praise or thank God truly we must find God and only God to be the cause of the situation or scenario for which we give thanks and praise.  The concern over the idolatrous act has some truth to it though more than simply idolatry may be at work.  However, I’d argue it is misplaced to think of praise and thanksgiving to God as requiring a causal link between God and situation and event over which one is giving praise.

Though, I actually wonder if such anxieties over praising God and their legitimacy, is really a failure to be fully immersed in the language and experience of the Psalms.  Praise and thanksgiving in the Psalms is varied and often also paired with lament.  Praise and thanksgiving are then complex. Praise and thanksgiving are about a particular situation, about the nature of God, and the relationship the psalmist has from God.

Sitting with the whole of the Psalms, I suggest that our anxiety around giving praise and thanksgiving to God for particular situations and “good fortune” (or is it “grace”, that is gift) occurs when we think praise and thanksgiving to be only in response to having received or experienced a desirable or good outcome.  Praise and thanksgiving over a particular situation is properly connected to who God is and one’s relationship to God.

Praise is relational, and is a response to the gift that is Given.  This donation will include any and all good things that happen to one who is in relationship to God.  This gift is not eliminated or negated by tragic or lamentable situations and suffering, thus praise and thanksgiving are part of lament, and aren’t merely celebratory responses.

Though praise and thanksgiving are also ecstatic celebrations that comes from personally knowing and encountering not only one’s own maker but the source of the entire cosmos.

When we are in relationship to God, our knowledge of God and our relation to God is found in praise of the character of God.  This is without regard to situation or suffering, thus lament is also praise.  Since we are in relation to that which is the ultimate source of all that is Good, any good thing is an occasion for celebrating in God’s presence, that is in the expression of praise and thanksgiving in the wake of a fortunate situation, even if we can’t directly link God’s action to the immediate outcome over which we are celebrating.

Seeing the lie behind a truth: Sermon for First Sunday in Lent

Sermon preached for the Oratory of Jesus Christ, Reconciler.  I don’t always post my sermons here but this sermon has a tone and subject matter that fits well within the Cure of Souls thread.  Our approach to Lent at the Oratory is a form of  group spiritual direction around different aspects of Lent and spiritual disciplines.  This Lent we are fasting together.  

Was the serpent correct?  Today we read the account of the Fall and Temptation of Christ. We hear of the first and last temptation of humanity.  During Lent we confront sin and its consequences.

What are we to make of the words of the Serpent and this story of the fall? Is it fair of God to put in front of us this fruit we couldn’t eat, and did death truly result from it?  In one sense, the serpents mocking of the consequence of eating the the fruit was correct, Adam and Eve didn’t drop dead on the spot, but as Paul says it brought condemnation and dominion of death.  We see this immediately, Adam and Eve who were open and free with each other suddenly experience separation and shame and they hide from each other and from God.  No longer are they free and completely open, naked with each other.  They experienced separation; death ultimately is a separation that can’t be bridged.    Don’t we know this separation, from ourselves, from our loved ones, from our friends, and most obviously from our enemies?  We may have moments of connection, and yet there is always already separation; a painful awareness that we could be left alone.  We have the painful awareness that making and keeping the connection with others is tenuous, this is part of the dominion of death. We might say that one act set in motion a world torn apart, where relationships are tenuous, even the best ones still come to an end.  The serpent spoke a half truth.

We humans have this tendency to believe the half-truth, which is really to believe the lie that is contained in the other half of the half-truth.   In both the temptation in the garden and Jesus’ temptation in the desert, we see what we are up against and what we (I think) can recognize in our own souls:  temptation often comes as half-truth that appeals to a good desire, but asks us to trust only the desire, rather than trust the whole truth about the world, others, and God.

The tempter comes and says, “ Look, you won’t drop dead!  You can look and see that this fruit is not poisonous. You can see and smell that it is good to eat.”  All true but covered over in these true words is the lie that God doesn’t really care for you, God is keeping this from you for no good reason.  This is the slipperiness of temptation and the winding path we follow into Sin.

We don’t know what would have happened if we hadn’t grabbed at the knowledge of good and evil.  We arent’ told what was ultimately intended by this one fruit. Did God intended us to have the knowledge of God and evil?  What we are told is that we grabbed it.  And what we do know is that our knowledge of good and evil didn’t give us the power to only do the good and avoid the evil, rather it has given us the propensity for both, and in such away that our doing good never really overcomes the evil. Many faithful have said that at some point this knowledge would have been given to us, but because we took it, because we sought it separated from God and God’s caring love for us, it could only distort our true humanity.  Now that we have it we can’t deliver ourselves from evil and the consequences of that first mistrust of God, that first failure of faith.

The good news is that all our sin, our separation our pain and suffering all the evil  in the world is just the beginning of the story, not the end.  When we sin, when we see oppression and violence in the world, we are simply playing out that scene in the Garden with Eve and Adam and the Serpent, but God tells another story .   God rewrites the story and changes the ending.  This rewrite is that one comes, a human, and meets the serpent again. This human being is so united with God that trust in God isn’t shaken by the half-truths the serpent speaks; the tempter, Devil using the Scriptures the Word of God against God in human flesh.  So, this time humanity is ready, In Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate Son, sees through the half-truth to the lie, and trusts that God truly fulfills our good desires.  Jesus of Nazareth, hungry and tested doesn’t need to grasp after the good things because God never intends to keep from us any good thing.  In fact all good is from God.  Your desire is from God, even that desire which might be unfulfilled at any particular moment, or even for one’s whole life.

Here we are, on the edge of the desert and the garden, intentionally entering a period of fasting and yes temptation, called into the desert with Jesus.  You will hear the tempter, the serpent; you will encounter your demons.  Be not afraid, know your desires are good, know that God will truly fulfill them.  However, hold your desires lightly.  Accept that not all desire can or should be fulfilled immediately or at all times. We fast to remind ourselves that our desire for food and other things while good should not devour and control us.  Desire is good, but if we accept the lie in the truth of the goodness of desire and believe that a good desire must be satiated now we fall into sin: we become separated from the one who will fulfill the desires of our hearts, the one who is what our hearts ultimately desire.

So, contemplate this Lent these two temptations, one which lead to our fall, the other which lead to our victory.  Let Christ’s faithfulness be your faithfulness.  Remember this Lent that you are Christ, you are the beloved, and in baptism you have the Spirit and have taken on Christ.  Trust in this and see the Tempter flee from you.  Even so, don’t be disheartened by a failure, for even in failure you are still Christ’s.  Repent, get up and accept God’s grace and forgiveness, assured that you are being transformed into this new humanity, which saw through the half-truth to the lie through faith and trust.

God loves you, your desires are good but they don’t need to be fulfilled: before temptation trust this truth. And to paraphrase St Augustine: as we begin this Lent and fast together, Love this one who is the desire of your soul, and do what you will.  Amen