Monday, January 30, 2017

Domination Systems (Darkness Revisited, Part II)

My last post, Darkness Revisited, generated a lot of interest and encouragement and comments on Facebook. Part of that, I'm sure, was Springsteen fans who have listened to Darkness On The Edge of Town as  much as I have. But I believe the theological point that I was trying to make is also important, and that it resonated. And that is about the notion of Sin.

My own sense in writing that post was not one of despair, but of hope. Not everyone read it that way, but I tried to say several times that where Sin abounds, Grace abounds all the more. I tried to make it clear that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot and will not overcome it. As a priest, I see liturgy and worship as an opportunity to practice. We light candles on Christmas Eve and at the Easter Vigil and at Candlemas (which is coming up!) not because it looks pretty but because we really do believe that we are called to let our light shine in the world.

In my faith tradition, the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement, The Baptismal Covenant is central to shaping and forming the people we have been claimed and marked to become. In Holy Baptism we have renounced evil in order to turn to Jesus. We come back again and again to renew those promises that were either made on our behalf as infants (and perhaps confirmed by us at Confirmation) or that we made as adults.

As a parish priest, when I prepared parents and godparents or candidates themselves for Holy Baptism, often the biggest challenge was in helping people to interpret the three-fold renunciation. Before being asked the three-fold affirmation (Do you turn to Jesus and accept him as Savior? Do you put your whole trust in grace and love? Do you promise to follow and obey him as Lord?) the presenters are asked three hard questions:
  • Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
  • Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
  • Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
The late New Testament scholar, Walter Wink, wrote a three-volume series on The Powers. In those three volumes, Wink is unpacking this old Biblical language to try to make sense of it in our postmodern world. He speaks of Domination Systems which is perhaps language we can better relate to. He speaks of naming, unmasking, and engaging these powers. 

That is the work I'm feeling drawn to in my writing and preaching and teaching these days and it is in part what was behind and ahead of my last post. I will be taking a sabbatical this April, May, and June and I'm beginning to develop a reading list, or perhaps more accurately a re-reading list. I want to explore these issues in the context of this time and place in the North American Church. How can we better equip ourselves and one another to be light that shines in the darkness by renouncing Satan, and the forces of wickedness that rebel against God, and the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, and sinful desires that draw us from the love of God? That last one has been particularly problematic in a Church that thinks everything is about sex! Greed, power, envy, selfishness, addiction and despair all draw us from the love of God - not just lust!

Here is the beginning of my sabbatical reading list. I'm open to additional suggestions!
So, this is where I am and where I feel like I'm headed in the weeks and months ahead. My hope is that these books and others help me to clarify what it means to be the Church in this time and place - what it means for us to let our light shine. I am hopeful about this work and about a Church that rediscovers its mission in the world. 

Perhaps an even greater enemy to this work than the Domination Systems themselves is the temptation to think that Christianity is "spiritual" and not contextual. Along the way I will continue to try to remind myself and readers that this is heretical; it even has a name, Marcionism. The Christian faith is Incarnational. We remember the God of Genesis fashioning human beings out of the clay of the earth, and sending prophets like Amos and Jeremiah and Micah and Isaiah to preach justice and kindness and mercy. We remember that the God who loved this created world enough to "pitch tent" among us in the Word-made-flesh, and to die on a cross, and to be raised in a way that wounds in his side could still be touched, has everything to do with this world. We remember that in the Book of Revelation, believers are not "beamed up" to heaven but the New Jerusalem emerges at the center of a new earth where there is no more weeping and pain is no more. 

And so, in the meantime, we renounce all that would destroy and hurt the creatures of God - all that seeks to dominate us and others - all that destroys human community. We most definitely have our work cut out for us. We are a people who are walking through great darkness. But we have also seen a great light, and we turn toward the One who has come that we might have life and have it abundantly. 

Friday, January 27, 2017

Darkness Revisited

Most people who know me (even if only through this blog) know what a huge Bruce Springsteen fan I am. And not just a fan of Bruce as a very talented musician; I read very good theology in Springsteen's poetry. When I listen to "My City of Ruins" I feel like I'm in church on Easter morning. The lyrics are so simple, but the music is so powerful. Even at the grave we dare to make our song. And we know that we are not spectators of Easter; we are called to become an Easter people, to enter into the story with our bodies. And so Springsteen sings:
With these hands. With these hands. With these hands. (And with God's help.)... Come on, rise up. Rise up. Rise up. (Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.)
But it doesn't feel like Easter to me right now. It's been a crazy, disconcerting first week of the Trump Presidency. Perhaps the most confusing thing to me (even more than the President himself and those around him and Republican leaders in Congress...) are evangelical (so-called) Christian leaders who seem to have lost their minds, and more importantly, have clearly lost their way. I used to think we belonged to different branches of the same faith. But a faith that does not care for the heavens and the earth that God asked us to tend, a faith that does not honor the full humanity of women, a faith that does not care for the stranger and the refugee, a faith that is willing to torture other human beings, a faith more focused on building walls than bridges, is not Christian faith. To claim it as such is taking the Lord's name in vain. It's heresy. 

It's Day 8 and this country is already different and we have every reason to be afraid. This brings me back to Bruce. I've been listening this week not to The Rising, but Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen's fourth album, released in 1978. And I've been thinking about Original Sin, and power, and how power corrupts. Happy thoughts! But it helps me to return to the roots of Christian theology as I try to make some sense of the world we are living in now. We are all getting more familiar with terms like gaslighting and Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and I find that all very helpful. There is even a Jungian reading of Trump as "America's own shadow" that I find compelling, and challenging.

But underneath these and other attempts to understand what is happening is the old Christian understanding of Sin. Or as Springsteen famously puts it in another song, on another album, "Sir, I guess there's just a meanness in this world." (See Nebraska.)

Progressive Christians don't tend to talk about sin very much. And whenever we do so we need to remember what St. Paul said, that while sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. (See Romans 5:20.) But Springsteen's exploration of this very concept in "Adam Raised a Cain" is worth another listen. Here is how the song begins:
In the summer that I was baptized / My father held me to his side / As they put me to the water / He said how on that day I cried / We were prisoners of love, a love in chains / He was standin' in the door I was standin' in the rain / With the same hot blood burning in our veins / Adam raised a Cain
What is so incredible to me about this song is that Springsteen's language is so explicitly Biblical, even as he is reflecting on his own difficult relationship with his father. He isn't blaming his father; he's fully aware that they have the "same hot blood burning in [their] veins. Springsteen moves toward empathy, recognizing that his father is not only Adam but also Cain: "Daddy worked his whole life for nothing but the pain," he sings. "And now he walks these empty rooms, looking for something to blame..." Often, in Springsteen's own life, that something was his son. And so we are all born into this life paying for the sins of someone else's past. That's how Bruce puts it. But it's pretty close to how St. Augustine put it too.

How sad! How awful! And yet, maybe also true. Sin abounds. The idea that things are getting progressively better, that it's a straight line toward justice is naive. As King put it, the moral arc of the universe is long. Yes, it bends toward justice! That's the prize on which we must keep our eyes. But it is a long journey, in a fallen world. Sin abounds. The walls that separate us are real. Thankfully, grace abounds all the more but that requires hope, and a lot of work.

The line I am most haunted by on Darkness, however, comes from the first track, "Badlands." There Bruce sings the best definition of sin that I know:
Poor man wanna be rich,
Rich man wanna be king,
And a king ain't satisfied,
'til he rules everything.
We forget this truth at our peril. Recently a friend of mine from Liberia told a group of Episcopal clergy of which I was a part (and I'm paraphrasing) "this is not a new thing, it happens every day, around the world...and Christians have been responding to it for a long time too!" Indeed. We don't need to speak only of Hitler and Mussolini; to do so shows a lack of historical imagination. There are others, in our lifetimes, in other parts of the world: Idi Amin. Ferdinand Marcos. Josip Tito. Anastasia Somoza. Juan Peron. Vladimir Putin. I'm sure I'm missing a dozen or more...

You don't try to understand what motivates those who try to silence the media and hear only their own lies. You resist them. You speak the truth, in love. You light a candle. You find allies. And yes, you also pace yourself. 

It's the Season after Epiphany for Christians, a season of light. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. Not yet. Not now. Not ever. With Bruce, and the saints through the ages, I still believe in the faith that can save us. And I still believe in a Promised Land. But the journey ahead will be an arduous one.

Pray for our nation, and for the world. Pray for our leaders. Pray for those most vulnerable to the dismantling of the Affordable Health Care Act and those being turned away from a nation that once asked the world to send us their tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Grant us wisdom and grant us courage, for the living of these days. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Being the Church: Stringfellow Revisited

I have just recently re-read William Stringfellow's An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, a book first published in 1973, another dangerous period in our nation's history. The headlines then were Watergate, Oil Crisis, Cold War, Vietnam. This is the socio-political context in which Stringfellow offers a critical reading of apocalyptic literature, particularly the Book of Revelation. Forty-four years later, he's worth another look, so I'm deeply grateful to several colleagues who have pointed me in his direction in the recent past.

A Harvard trained lawyer and Episcopal layperson, Stringfellow was not one to mince words. It is interesting to me that seven years before Ronald Reagan was comparing the United States to "a shining city on a hill" (as the Puritan settlers in New England had done before him) Stringfellow was insisting that this gets it wrong. The United States and all imperial powers are not new Jerusalems, according to Stringfellow; they are new manifestations of Babylon. "Babylon," Stringfellow writes, "represents the essential version of the demonic in triumph in a nation." He then goes on to write:
Two societies are prominent in the biblical witness. There is Babylon, and there is also Jerusalem. Babylon is a city of death, Jerusalem is the city of salvation; Babylon, the dominion of alienation, babel, slavery, war, Jerusalem the community of reconciliation, sanity, freedom, peace; Babylon, the harlot, Jerusalem, the bride of God; Babylon, the realm of demons and foul spirits, Jerusalem the dwelling place in which all creatures are fulfilled; Babylon an abomination to the Lord, Jerusalem, the holy nation; Babylon, doomed, Jerusalem, redeemed.
Our hope is not in making the nation into a shining city on the hill; it is in being the Church, an outward and visible sign of hope called to incarnate signs of the New Jerusalem in the midst of Babylon. As such, our work is let our light shine for all the world to see.

I find this hermeneutic extremely helpful. On Friday, the 45th President of the United States will be inaugurated. While I think this was a poor decision made in the Electoral College and that we are in dangerous territory as a nation, in truth I must also admit that it helps me to take steps toward clarity about what it means to be the Church. I don't want to be overly dramatic and I was (helpfully) reminded by a colleague this past week that the reaction of progressives in response to Trump's election looks an awful lot like the reaction of the religious right to the election of Obama eight years ago. Both reactions may well be rooted in fear, and lots of it.

So I'm trying not to go down that road, even though I have my own fears. I find Stringfellow helpful because while he is very clear in this same book that the Church is definitely called to be political and that the Bible cannot faithfully be read apart from the political context(s) in which it arose (including but not limited to refugees fleeing from Egypt and then entering into the Promised Land where people already resided; loss of the land to the Babylonian empire and political exile, followed by return under Cyrus of Persia and the political challenges faced during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah; the Roman domination of first-century Palestine and Jesus' birth on the edges of that empire because of a decree from the emperor and then his death on a cross, the Roman method of carrying out the death penalty, etc. and including the Book of Revelation, which is all about politics.)

Ultimately the Bible is about love, not fear, in the midst of all that empire. Perfect love that casts out fear and allows us to be faithful witnesses in the midst of Babylon.

The big seminary-educated word for this is "ecclesiology" - words about the ecclesia, "the gathered community that seeks to follow Jesus and names him as the Christ." To put this in plain English, I'm trying to wrap my head around what it means to be the Church in 2017 and Stringfellow is a very helpful guide. In the face of the serious challenges our nation faces, it is time for the Church (and the mosque and synagogue and other aliens in this strange land) to get clear about who we are and whose we are.

If the most recent election had gone the other way we would not be free and clear right now. While I might personally be feeling more optimistic and less afraid, I know that we would all still be facing many of the same issues and challenges.  Among them: we would be just as deeply divided as a nation; we'd just be on different sides. Fox News would be going crazy while MSNBC would be gloating. Gun violence and opioids would still be corrosively destroying our towns and cities from the inside out. Our schools would still be facing enormous challenges and so, too, would we be facing dangerous global threats.  While I strongly believe that the other candidate would have better addressed these challenges, she would still be trying to work with a Congress that has very different ideas and would be strategizing to stop her at every turn. So who can know for sure how successful she would have been.

The Church is called to be the Church, and that begins with clarity about what our vocation is. "Incarnational theology," Stringfellow writes, "regards this world in the fullness of its fallen estate as simultaneously disclosing the ecumenical, militant, triumphant presence of God." He insists the incarnation "sanctifies the world." And then how about these extraordinary words - words I'm pondering, turning over, praying with, hoping with into this weekend and beyond:
Jerusalem is visibly exemplified as an embassy among the principalities - sometimes secretly, sometimes openly - or as a pioneer community - sometimes latently, sometimes discretely, sometimes audaciously. And the life of Jerusalem, institutionalized in Christ's Church (which is never to be uncritically equated with ecclesiastical structures professing the name of the Church) is marvelously dynamic. Constantly changing in her appearances and forms, she is incessantly being rendered new, spontaneous, transcendent, paradoxical, improvised, radical, ecumenical, free.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Light and Bread at Midnight

Almighty God, by the hand of Moses your servant you led your people out of slavery, and made them free at last: Grant that your Church, following the example of your prophet Martin Luther King, may resist oppression in the name of your love, and may secure for all your children the blessed liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Each year at this time as I remember and give thanks for the life and witness of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I re-read Letter from Birmingham Jail. If you don't know it, I encourage you to honor his memory by clicking on that link and reading, or re-reading it, in these early weeks of 2017. The letter is a response to liberal white Protestant clergy, of which I am one, who tend to counsel patience and "waiting and seeing" when in fact what is needed is to stand and be counted. I hear the words as a challenge to do better by resisting oppression. I hear these words from prison as akin to those of St. Paul, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer - as words of clarity that come to a person who is locked up, but whose freedom you cannot take away. His words inspire me to be more courageous and less patient with injustice. His words kindle a desire within me to speak truth to power in this time and place. With God's help...

But this year, I've just finished listening again to the audio of the sermon, "A Knock at Midnight," which also seems just as relevant this year. You can read the manuscript here but hearing it is even better.  It speaks across the decades, I think, into our very circumstances.

It is a "thick" and powerful sermon but two paragraphs that really speak to me as a Christian leader are these: 
Bestsellers in psychology are books such as Man Against HimselfThe Neurotic Personality of Our Times, and Modern Man in Search of a Soul. Bestsellers in religion are such books as Peace of Mind and Peace of Soul. The popular clergyman preaches soothing sermons on "How to Be Happy" and "How to Relax." Some have been tempted to revise Jesus’ command to read, "Go ye into all the world, keep your blood pressure down, and, lo, I will make you a well-adjusted personality." All of this is indicative that it is midnight within the inner lives of men and women...
...the church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority. If the church does not participate actively in the struggle for peace and for economic and racial justice, it will forfeit the loyalty of millions and cause men everywhere to say that it has atrophied its will. But if the church will free itself from the shackles of a deadening status quo, and, recovering its great historic mission, will speak and act fearlessly and insistently in terms of justice and peace, it will enkindle the imagination of mankind and fire the souls of men, imbuing them with a glowing and ardent love for truth, justice, and peace. Men far and near will know the church as a great fellowship of love that provides light and bread for lonely travelers at midnight.
I yearn for that kind of Church: a Church that "provides light and bread for lonely travelers at midnight." And I pray for the grace and the courage to work toward that day. Let freedom ring!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

New Year's Resolution

Jean Pierre de Caussade (1675-1751) was a French Jesuit priest and spiritual director whose theology is articulated in a little (but dense) book called The Sacrament of the Present Moment. The quotation below is a reflection on de Caussade's work that comes from J. Neville Ward, in his book Enquiring Within, published by Epworth Press in 1988Ward writes: 

Jesus was a practical, one item at a time man, with no admiration at all for minds that rush ahead... In the huge pile of stuff that is recommended to Christians for spiritual reading I have not found anyone who so clearly and practically interpreted this part of his teaching as J. P. de Caussade in his thoughts on the sacrament of the present moment. 

It is part of that idea that if the present is not exactly wonderful for you, then it's worth finding out why, finding out whether or not there is a problem at this moment, and, if there is one, doing now whatever can be done about it now. If there isn't any problem just now, then there's nothing to stop us looking around to see if there isn't on the contrary something to be enjoyed, and simply enjoying it...

Whatever is present is in front of me now; it is also impermanently there; being momentary, it is fading, and it must pass away sooner or later...

If the desired situation is with me now, it is, even so, time-driven. To live intelligently means to be ready, even if it is mostly at some great depth of being, for it to go.

If it is not with me yet, let that be so too. I must let it not be yet. It's possible to use up all your days seeing happiness mistily in the future, unaware that you are always sure to see some blemish on what is present because your faith is that somewhere else is nearer the centre of joy. In time I shall be a happier person...

God is the universally present one. It's a belief that is at the centre of many religions. The present moment is always his presence. His presence is always the present moment. The present moment invariably consists principally in something to be done or something to be put up with or something to be enjoyed. Attending wholeheartedly to whichever of these it the case is what is meant by responding to God and doing his will....

I don't tend to be very big on "new year's resolutions" as a rule, but I resolve to try to live more intentionally by this creed in 2017. With God's help. I do believe this truth and that it does go the heart of Jesus' teachings about the Kingdom of God, which is breaking into our midst even now, if only we have eyes to see. The Old Testament writer, Qoheleth (the "Preacher" in Ecclesiastes), was on to this same truth I think when he invited his readers to see in each moment an opportunity to either enjoy or to consider. In good moments, to enjoy: to eat, drink, and be merry. And in challenging moments: to consider, to learn, to wonder, to be curious about what it might mean. But in both cases, not to get stuck in the past nor to worry about the future, but rather to fully embrace the sacredness of each successive present moment. This wisdom rings true for me as this new year begins.