Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Questions From Aurora

The word “aurora” is from the Latin for “dawn.” In Roman mythology Aurora was the goddess of sunrise. Can we ever again say or hear the word Aurora and think sunrise or wonderful brightness that dispels the darkness? Hard to imagine isn’t it? There seems to be no adjective that is brutal enough to describe the senseless maiming and slaughter in the Aurora movie theater. One thing is clear, the word Aurora now joins with Oklahoma City, Columbine, nine-eleven and others that speak to us of the impossible to understand. We know what happened, but can we ever make sense of it?
It is tempting to try to explain James Holmes’ actions by appealing to his apparently disturbed mental state. Indeed media are busy interviewing mental health professionals to get their take on which label to hang on him. The more professional and thoughtful are providing a sound bite nobody really wants to hear--we would only be guessing by trying to diagnose him at a distance. Others are quick to use words, such as, sociopath or psychopath.
As helpful to us as trying to understand the shooter’s motivation might be, even when we’ve got the right label, thoughtful Christians will be faced with a bigger problem. Some are already putting the question as, “How could a loving God allow this to happen?” Others phrase it this way, “Where is God in all this?”
The first question results from the shock of hearing about completely innocent and good people who just wanted to enjoy a movie with family or friends being massacred. In the same way, many of us struggle with the effects of natural disaster: how can God allow a tornado, or hurricane, or wildfire that is indiscriminate in its destruction to happen? One assumption behind such a question seems to be that God shouldn’t punish the good along with the bad. As parents, we wouldn’t spank all our kids because one of them disobeyed, therefore, if God has to do harm to someone, let it be those who deserve the harm.  Another assumption seems to be, that since this kind of harm can’t possibly be justified, God must not really be loving. And if God is not loving, then perhaps God is just capricious and unworthy of our adoration and affection. Perhaps God is like the gods of mythology who liked to send lightening bolts or floods or without crops just because they could so, maybe we need to cower before God and be afraid.
The answer to the first question is a complex one, I think, requiring us to be thoughtful about who God is and why God acts or fails to act. Indeed, it requires a level of thoughtfulness that many of us prefer to avoid. Today, I’m not going to try to answer it either, though I will later.  Today, in the midst of our pain and confusion, I want to answer the second question: “Where is God in all this?” I think the question can be rephrased this way, “Can God help me or us in our grief and shock?”  I believe the answer is “yes.”
My parents were imperfect, probably much like yours. I didn’t always understand why they set the limits they did, and I didn’t always feel as though their discipline or punishments were fair or just. Even when I saw them as being unjust, unfair, and just plain mean, I also knew if I was harmed in some way I could go to them. Early in life it was a scrapped knee or cut finger; later the injuries were more profound and less physical. In any case, I knew that if I asked, something would be done to diminish my pain. Not once did I ever hear, “Don’t come running to me; you brought this on yourself.” Neither did I hear, “You deserve what happened.” Instead, the boo boo got kissed, as it were.
Kissing the boo boo didn’t actually make it all better, but it certainly made it easier to bear. The affection behind that kiss, the awareness that I was in distress and they wished I weren’t, these were the things that mattered. If our imperfect parents could help us in our pain and anguish, isn’t it likely that God, with whatever faults we may imagine God to have, is better able to help us?
If today, you’d like to shake your fist at God because one of his creations did such an unspeakable act, go ahead. You join the many saints of old, such as Job who did the same thing. God can take it. If you want to ask God, even as you shake your fist, to help you manage the torrent of emotions you’re experiencing, go ahead. You won’t hear, “You got yourself into this mess; get yourself out.” You won’t hear, “You only show up when you want something.” You won’t hear anything like these things. You will hear something and, I believe firmly, you will feel something. The boo boo will feel kissed and somehow that will help.
So where is God in all this? Waiting to hear from you.
Peace, Jerry

Thursday, July 19, 2012

What Does It Mean?

As a minister and teacher, I am often asked questions which begin, “What does the Bible say about...” There is an underlying assumption about such a question. That assumption is: the Bible is the final authority in spiritual and religious matters, so we need to know what it says about the matter in question. Knowing what it says should end the discussion--our authority has spoken.
There are a couple of big problems with this approach. First, on many things, the Bible is silent. In the English Reformation, one of the sticky issues during Elizabeth’s time (and afterwards) was whether clergy should wear vestments. The argument against it was that the Bible doesn’t mention vestments, therefore the custom of wearing them was clearly a human invention (and smacked of vanity). The argument for it was, since the Bible is silent, it’s a non-essential matter; plus, tradition speaks in favor of it--they’ve been worn for centuries with no apparent harm. Here we see a couple of important issues developing; exactly how is the Bible the authority on matters and what role does tradition play in things?
A second problem is how to understand what the Bible says. This is a problem because, it actually doesn’t say much of anything that doesn’t need to be interpreted in some way. By interpreted, I mean to try to grasp the meaning rather than what it says. In conversation our words and our meaning are not always congruent. You’ve had this happen: someone seems miffed at you and you ask them if they’re OK. “I’m fine,” they reply with anger dripping off their tone of voice. Their use of the word “fine” can’t reasonably be understood as, “Everything is OK; don’t worry.” What they meant and what they said are different. The same holds true in written communication--maybe even more so since we can’t hear tone, volume or inflection or see facial gestures or body language when we read.
An illustration for faith can be foundin  the words in the Great Thanksgiving called the Words of Institution that are said over the bread and wine. We would like to know what Jesus said so we can incorporate those exact words in our ritual. Sadly, the synoptic Gospels that contain these words don’t agree--never mind the problems of translation I’ve spoken to in other posts. (See 9 May entry, “What Did Jesus Say?”) Even more important, we’d like to know what he meant. To solve the problem of uncertainty, we have interpreted the Gospels and arrived at what can be considered the essence of what Jesus was getting at.  I could give hundreds of examples, but you’d be tired of reading them quickly.
A third problem is one of context. When we read something written 2000 years or so ago, we have to keep in mind that it was written to a particular audience, with a particular point of view, in a particular culture, the latter being dramatically different from our own. To address a question asked Sunday, what does the Bible say about women clergy? The answer is: nothing. It doesn’t say much about male clergy either. Bishops, for example, are mentioned, but their roles don’t seem to be anything like the roles present day Episcopal bishops fill. One  Greek word used in the New Testament is “presbuteros” and means “elder” as in “older person” and it is from this word that we get our word “priest.” The word is used to describe those in authority in a local assembly of Christians. The Greek word “episkopos” means “overseer” or “ruler” and it is used in the NT four times refering to church leaders. It is from this word we get our word “bishop.” Both are used to describe some kind of leadership role in the early communities. Were they? We can’t be sure. Even so, there is no mention of bishops ordaining anybody or confirming anybody in the first 100 or so years. Yet today, those are two very important roles exclusive to bishops; nor is there any mention of the elders presiding at the Eucharist for the first 150 years. The context is different from ours and so, apparently, was the need. As time passed and the Christian community’s needs changed, so did the way in which these leaders’ roles were understood.
This problem of context is especially important when the Bible seems to offer contradictory teachings. What we know about women is, that very early on, they were active participants in the life of the scattered churches, (see Paul’s letters and Acts) and as time went by, some communities embraced that idea and some rejected it. Around the year 200, we know from a Christian writer that some communities had women prophets; exactly what that meant is unclear, but clearly some communities embraced the idea that women could speak for God. But this writer who told us about them didn’t like the idea of women speaking with God’s authority at all. Even before that, by the time I Timothy is written around 130 to 155 AD, the writer says that women are not to teach or have authority over men. This is a major text which has been used to subordinate women in the Church. However, I Timothy also says, “Use a little wine for the stomach’s sake.” Are we then to all be wine drinkers or to use only wine to settle our upset stomachs? The same letter also says that women will be saved by bearing children. Do we believe that today? Statements such as this have to be seen in context and the context was complex.
Now and then I’d really like it if we had a Bible that was like a rule book for football. It would all be simple and cut and dried, no need for interpretation. Yet, even the football rule book has been changed hundreds of times as the game evolved because the old rules didn’t fit anymore. However, the basics of the game have remained remarkably the same for all these years. On most days, I’m happy with the Book we have. Like football, things change and our Bible can still offer the guidance we need. As Episcopalians we make much of factoring in reason (which includes the total of our experience) and tradition along with Scripture to make sense of God’s will for the Church and those who are a part of this Kingdom. It’s harder work, but with God’s help, it will take care of us.
Peace, Jerry

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Spreading the Word

The early followers of Jesus in Jerusalem and environs probably numbered around 100. I base this on the gospel story of Jesus sending out the 70 to preach and heal folks before his death and resurrection. The Twelve and some others stayed in Jerusalem until they were forced out by the Romans. There are some stories of some of the Twelve going to places such as Egypt, India and Spain, and no doubt some of them are true.
With Paul’s conversion experience about 35 AD, after a period of time, he began his journeys to spead the Word. Even so, we know from his letters that he was writing to Christians in some places he’d never been--so someone else must have taken the message of Jesus to those places. Looking at a map of where groups of Christians were by the end of the first century, it’s clear they are in many more places than Paul could have gone to establish communities.
What’s the point? The point is we tend to think “spreading the Word” is a task for the professionals, such as the Twelve or Paul--or clergy. But clearly, it wasn’t that way in the beginning. Spreading the word was something an untold number of individuals did when they traveled on business or other reasons, as soldiers moved about (although it was very hard to be a Christian soldier) or others who just felt compelled to share what they had learned and/or felt.
In my first pastoral assignment, right after the earth cooled, at a church in the country, one of the members came up to me to report that a new family had moved in down on Rocky Fork Road and it would be a good idea for me to visit them. I asked how she happened to know about this family and she replied, “I drive by the house they moved into going to work and coming home from work in Nashville every day.” I told her I thought my visiting would be a great thing to do, and I’d be sure to do it right after she visited and reported back to me.  She was shocked! I imagined she was thinking, “But that’s what we pay you for!” however, she was gracious enough to not say it. Or too dumbstruck to say it!
I thought I owed her an explanation. “When I show up at that house, they will know that I’m the hired professional and that it’s my job to visit them and invite them to worship with us. If they come because they like me and perhaps end up staying because they like me, what might they do when I leave? But if you visit them, they will quickly learn you’re a neighbor and you won’t soon be leaving the community as I will. If they come, it will be because you, a community member, showed interest in them. They’ll get to know you and when I leave, it won’t matter.”
She chewed it over for a bit, but she didn’t promise to visit before she turned and walked away. I wish I could remember if she ever did or if I ever visited the new family, but it’s been 45 years and some things just won’t come to the surface. I hope we both did, but....
There is always a danger in parishes that the people of the parish are more loyal to a given priest or deacon than they are to the welfare of the parish. The priest leaves and they soon wander off. To keep that from happening, each of us needs to be about spreading the word. There are lots of ways to do it, so I won’t insult you by making suggestions about the obvious ones. I do hope we each feel it is our personal responsibility to reach out, however. Where would we be today if others before us had failed to do so.
Peace, Jerry