Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Casting Out Demons

At the seminary where I teach, there is a continually replenished supply of donated books that are not needed in the library or library books that are no longer needed. I like to browse these and last week I picked up one whose title interested me: The New Demons by Jacques Ellul. The title alone was enough to get me thinking.
When Jesus walked the earth, he sometimes cast out demons. Seldom were the demons described, but most of us have, in modern times, come to think of these demons mostly as psychological issues. When Jesus is said to have cast out seven demons from Mary of Magdala, we wonder if today she would have been confined to a mental ward with seven coexisting mental health diagnoses. I have to say it would be hard to imagine any modern person with seven distinct mental health dysfunctions, but I guess it’s possible. Or maybe Mary had both physical problems blamed on demons as well as mental problems to add up to seven.
Ellul, being a modern man and not given to acribing mental illness to demons, has another idea about modern demons which I find compelling. He names the “new” demons that individuals may face as: wealth, power, reliance on science (and by extension technology), and unbridled sexual expression. I think I would add to this an out of control sense of entitlement which I see as driving most if not all these demons. A question this raises for me is whether these are truly new, or are they just becoming more widespread?
I ask this because I’ve been re-reading a history of the papacy. I won’t go into detail, but the bottom line is the papacy from the 4th century on in almost all its popes exhibits the demons of wealth, power, and unbridled sexual expression. As one pope, aptly demonstrating the historical sense of entitlement that went with the office, put it immediately after being elected, “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.” [Leo X in the 16th century] He did too in ways most of his contemporary historians were too modest to graphically describe. 
What I think is different is this: while popes and other clergy clearly lost their way as spiritual leaders during most of the history of the Church, the average person could never have felt entitled, wealthy, or powerful. They were lucky if they were simply left alone to manage a bare living. Today, it seems to me, it is not only those in positions of power, but the average Jane and Joe whose sense of entitlement drives much of their behavior. Feeling entitled generally means you feel as if you are somehow special, more deserving. Is that a demon?
I’m not suggesting that pursuing financial security is, per se, demonic. I am suggesting that it can become all consuming, that is, it can take control of your life. Losing a $2B dollar market bet seems to be over the top. The force driving that seems to meet the definition of demonic. 
I’m not suggesting that the enjoyment of our sexuality is bad. However, the evidence today is that involvement in the use of pornograpy is more widespread than at any time in history. This is true largely due to ease of internet access to pornography, but the fact that it’s more available doesn’t require people to make more use of it. Sounds like a demon at work.
Here’s something to think about: is Ellul on to something when he describes these modern demons and do you think I can make the case they are very widespread? Let’s say you agree. Seems to me the most helpful response each of us can make is to do our own little personal inventory. To the degree we find these demons creeping into our lives, we can excise them, as we often say, “I will with God’s help.” It may be that lots of us needed healing. I know I do.
Peace, Jerry

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Small Drops of Oil

Last week Maria Shriver spoke to the graduates of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. In an article in USA Today, she was quoted as suggesting the graduates needed to learn how to pause because, she said, “I believe the state of our communication is out of control. And you? I believe you have the incredible opportunity to fix it.”
She went on to say, “You have the power, each and every one of you, to change the way we as a nation speak to one another.  I truly believe you can change our national discourse for the better...Change it from criticism and fault-finding to understanding and compassion. Change it from nay-saying and name calling to acceptance and appreciation.  Change it from dissembling and dishonesty to openness and explanation. Change from screaming to speaking.” The article went on to report that many graduates were moved to tears. I can see why.
While I was contemplating how to work the above into this week’s post, I received an email from a friend. The subject line was “Pastoral Thought for the Day.” What followed is the quotation from Mother Teresa which I have included below.
“Do not think that love, in order to be genuine, has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired. How does a lamp burn? Through the continuous input of small drops of oil. If the drops of oil run out, the light of the lamp will cease. What are these drops of oil in our lamps? They are the small things of daily life: faithfulness, punctuality, small words of kindness, a thought for others, our way of being silent, of looking, of speaking, and of acting. These are the true drops of love. Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.”
This was not something I’d seen previously, but I immediately loved it. I suppose each of these things said by Maria and Teresa fit in nicely with my conclusions of last week. Both put flesh on the bones of the command to love that seems to me to be the heart of what following Jesus is about. 
I’ve been re-reading a history of the papacy. Such reading is not for the faint of heart or those whose faith is shaky. The evils and horrors done to others in the name of the Church, inspired by and/or supported by pope after pope were couched in terms of heresy. Heresy was ultimately defined as disobedience to the Church and the papacy and was essentially removed from the realm of faith per se. Rome, throughout its history, has dealt in what is called propositional faith--belief in a certain set of ideas or statements. Rome, of course, is not alone in this approach. Other Churches and denominations have fallen into the same pattern, making a set of derived ideas as the essential element of faith and, in effect, replacing faith in Jesus as the essential of salvation.
My reading of Scripture and my understanding of history leads me in another way. Candidly, I sometimes have to do some mental finger crossing when I say a creed--a propositional statement of faith. I justify saying it because it is historic and there are those things in it that speak to me. But, I have never had to cross my fingers when I speak of the theme of love that seems to me to permeate the Old Testament and the words of Jesus remembered in the New. Love is always an action and both Maria and Teresa affirm that in ways I endorse, applaud, and try to live.
I hope you find meaning and inspiration in their words too.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Thoughts About Confirmation

Sunday at the Cathedral was especially glorious; a bunch of people were confirmed. Before the actual confirmations, several people were baptized. In one family both the mother and her infant were baptized.  As the young mother was having the sign of the cross traced on her forehead by the bishop, and as he intoned the words, “You are sealed in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever,” tears slipped down her cheeks.  I saw the same thing happen last year when an another adult was baptized.  Still, having witnessed many, many over the years, and having performed a few myself, it is a rare sight to see tears.
After the service, I saw the young mother and said, “It’s not often I see someone cry at a baptism.” I had more to say, but before I could get it out, she began to apologize.  I cut her off and finished with, “It was wonderful!”  She smiled, relieved I wasn’t scolding her and said, “It meant so much to me.”  That was not unlike what I’d heard a year earlier when I spoke to the man who teared up--along with his wife who sponsored him.
I share this with you because I have for a long time thought we make it too easy to become baptized and confirmed as adults.  In the early centuries of the Church, especially before Constantine made Christianity a legal religion--by the way, he did NOT make it the state religion; that happened later--a person presenting for baptism was expected to undergo at least a year’s rigorous instruction. The belief was that people should know what they were getting themselves into, partly because they might have to die simply for being a Christian. Those preparing for baptism were not even allowed to witness the Eucharist, much less partake. They were excused from the congregation at the peace.
Today many parishes make preparing for baptism and confirmation as easy and as non-taxing as they can.  At the Cathedral, adult confirmation classes usually span six to eight weeks of one hour sessions. Some other parishes do more, most do about the same; some do less.  I suppose we think if we Episcopalians make it too hard, people might not get confirmed and, therefore, won’t become members of the church. I understand this. These days it’s hard to keep people focused on anything very long. I can imagine folks giving up and moving on and I don’t want that.
At the same time, I’m not sure that requiring a year’s study would have changed anything for that young woman or the man last year. For them, the experience of joining the communion of saints, of being grafted into the Body of Christ, was probably as moving as it could be. Would I like them to know more of our rich heritage as Episcopalians? Do I wish they had a better understanding of what’s going on in worship, and more important for me, why it’s going on? Sure. But I can’t honest say they would be any more engaged or dedicated to a life in our Lord because of it. 
Like many things as I get older, the clear lines of my cherished beliefs blur sometimes. I suppose if I tried I could come down firmly on one side of the other of this matter. But, I’m stilled moved by the tears.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

What Did Jesus Say?

A few weeks ago I delivered a talk in Florence, Alabama titled Who Was King James and Why Did He Want A New Bible?  It was great fun and there was an extended Q and A when I finished. One participant asked, “You mentioned that you had 15 or so different translations of the Bible in your personal library. Since we need to know exactly what Jesus said, which translation should we use?”
The question is both understandable and troubling at the same time. We all want to know “exactly what Jesus said.” The essentials of our faith can be said to rest on the report of his death and resurrection, but much of our beliefs about both the particulars of faith and how we are to live as Christians flows from what the Scriptures report of his life and teachings.  Needing to have an accurate historical record is clearly understandable. But we are faced with a score of problems in knowing. I was only able to mention a couple in my response that day. Here are some common ones.
First, the earliest known written Gospel dates from around 70 AD. That’s about 30 years after his resurrection. How trustworthy are your 30 year old memories of details of conversations?
Second, the oldest fragment of a manuscript of a Gospel dates from about 125 AD. It is about the same size as a playing card and is a portion of John containing 114 words.  That’s 95 years after the resurrection. The oldest complete copy of the first Gospel, Mark, dates from about 450 AD, though an almost complete copy without the longer ending dates from around 300 AD. Almost certainly based on older copies, we can’t check them against older versions because none have been found.
Third, even if we had the original manuscripts, they would likely be in Greek since all the others are. Jesus apparently spoke Aramaic. So the writer had to translate his Aramaic words into Greek to write them down. If you’ve ever learned a language as a second language, you know that not all words have exact equivalents and that often something changes, at least subtly, in the translation. On top of that, words alter their meaning over time. When the KJV was developed in 1411, “prevent” meant “precede.” Now it means stop. Another is “allege.” Then allege meant “prove,” now it means “assert someone has done something wrong.”
Fourth, each of the Gospels don’t remember Jesus’ words in the same way. In some cases the words are the same; in other cases there are important changes.  For example, “Blessed are the poor,” in one Gospel becomes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” in another. Additionally, not all Gospel report the same sayings in any form.
I couldn’t leave the questioner with a set of problems in trying to answer his question, so after pointing out some dilemmas, I offered my own approach for consideration. While I don’t think I can be sure of exactly what Jesus said, I think I can see certain themes in what was reported he said. These themes include God’s unconditional love for us, the necessity of our loving each other even when the “other” seems unlovable, care for the sick, the hungry, the poor and the imprisoned, and the necessity to tell others of the messages of Jesus. I then said something like, “If we could just manage to do these things today, we’d be demonstrating we know what Jesus said.”
What do you think? 

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Keeping the Dogs At Bay

Well, I guess I lied a little bit when I said last week was the last of Why Do We Do That series. I really intended to give you a break, but I began to feel bad about leaving out someone very much in evidence in most Episcopal cathedrals and in other parishes too. This someone’s office and responsibilities have been around at least since the early days of the Anglican Church and very likely before that. I speak of the Verger.
The Verger is a lay person who dresses in a black gown called a cassock. Over that the Verger wears a purple or violet chimere. The latter is a garment that begin life as a part of what university professors wore. It looks like an academic gown, but without sleeves and it worn open at the front. The Verger carries a short virge (latin: virga meaning twig or rod). Why? Originally, the Verger led the processions and had to use the virge to assist the procession in moving through the crowds. The crowds could become unruly in their enthusiasm sometimes. The virge was useful for waking worshippers who might have dozed off or for keeping the dogs and other animals from approaching the altar!  Sometimes they may have had to wack a chorister who had become disruptive. Remember, the invention of pews and sitting for worship is a relatively modern innovation. For centuries people stood, or sat on the floor, or brought their own little stool to church. They, and small animals like dogs, cats, and chickens, milled around during worship, so the Verger had to keep order.
Early Vergers had a host of other responsibilities too. Besides keeping order, they took care of the buildings and its furnishings, helped prepare for the liturgy, and dug graves. Today, behind the scenes they still help prepare for the liturgy. They also ceremonially precede the service participants as they move about the church. You’ll notice them most at St. Mary’s as they walk in procession and at communion when they direct someone with bread and the cup to worshippers who were unable to go forward to receive communion.
The official website of Episcopal Vergers says, “We often say that every parish has a verger whether they are identified as such. Some typical verger duties are assigning, training, and checking in lectors, chalice bearers, acolytes and prayer intercessors.”
We can be thankful that modern Vergers almost never need to keep the dogs at bay.
OK. Next week I promise a more “theological” topic and to lay off the history stuff for a bit. I’m blogging about the topic What Did Jesus Really Say? Fair warning though, sometimes I just can’t help myself and history rears its head.