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!
- Apocalyptic Biblical Literature, especially the Book of Daniel and Revelation. I recently posted on William Stringfellow's "An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land." The Book of Revelation is key to what he's doing there. I also just purchased a commentary by Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Justice and Judgement.
- Ched Myer's amazing commentary on Mark's Gospel, Binding the Strong Man is also due for a re-read.
- As mentioned, Wink's trilogy on Naming, Unmasking, and Engaging The Powers.
- Paul Auster's novel, In the Country of Last Things. I first encountered this novel in reading L. Susan Bond's Trouble With Jesus: Women, Christology, and Preaching. I love her book which among other things outlines an atonement theology focused on "salvage." (She notes the word salvage and salve, as in a healing balm, are in the same family of words - as of course is the world salvation.) I love Bond's book and at some point I loaned it to someone - if that someone is reading this post and you have my book - I'd love to get it back! Otherwise I'll find another copy to take with me in April as well.
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.