Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Not Enough Righteous

This past Sunday, many congregations heard an Old Testament lesson from Genesis. In it, Abraham and God are having a conversation about Sodom--a notoriously wicked city. God has heard bad things about the city and is going to investigate. If the reports are true, he tells Abraham, he is going to destroy the city and all its dwellers. Then begins a dialogue between God and Abraham which is startling. Abraham, very politely it has to be said, begins to question God’s decision.

“What if there are fifty righteous in the city? Will you destroy the righteous with the ungodly?” Abraham asks. “No, for the sake of fifty, I’ll spare it,” God replies. And thus begins the negotiation. Forty-five? What about forty? Finally, Abraham settles on ten and God agrees if there are ten righteous people in Sodom, he’ll spare the city.

If you’ve listened at all in Church and Christian Formation classes, you know Sodom is not spared. Not even ten righteous were found. But, there were a few righteous living in Sodom. Four, in fact: Lot, his wife, and his two daughters. God warns them to flee the destruction, but he doesn’t spare the city. 
I have a couple of comments to offer for your consideration. Abraham’s challenge to God is not an isolated event in Scripture. In Psalm 10, the Psalmist takes God to task for allowing wicked people to prosper. Clearly the Psalmist’s sense of justice is offended by God’s inaction. Another example is found in Psalm 22 in which God is accused of forsaking the writer. In a nutshell, “We trusted you, we worshipped you, and still you have forsaken us.” And, of course, the story of Job is a third example of questioning God’s mercy or justice. 

This is a not uncommon kind of prayer, especially among Jewish folk. A modern example can be found in Fiddler on the Roof in which Tevye scolds God for not making him a rich man. “Lord who made the lion and the lamb, you decreed I should be what I am. Would it spoil some vast eternal plan, if I were a wealthy man?” 

So, point number one: Christians do not have to simply say in the fact of bad things, “It was God’s will.” Really? Maybe not. Maybe a bit more persistence and God will have another will for that situation. [This is a troubling reality and warrants more space than I’m giving it. Perhaps another post.]

Point number two: Maybe Abraham didn’t get to four in his negotiations because Lot had lived among the inhospitably and wicked people of Sodom for so long, that he had disappeared from sight. As Christians, we would do well to try to establish (re-establish?) ourselves as counter-cultural so we don’t face the same charges. The danger is always present that, in our desire to not offend, we overlook the truly offensive in our culture. Doing so certainly undercuts what is often called “our witness.”

Think on these things.  Jerry+

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Spiritual, Not Religious

As I write this, I'm looking from a balcony out over a placid lake. A storm blew through here last night, but today is calm, though still cloudy. I've been holding my infant twin grandsons this morning. All in all, these moments have been a peaceful experience for me. One might even say a spiritual experience.

In many ways, I find the word spiritual a difficult word to define. I can certainly feel something different in me at certain times and I sometimes call those moments spiritual. I've looked at this lake before without that moment creating that "different experience." Yet, today for several minutes, it felt spiritual, perhaps a transcendent moment. This is the first opportunity to hold the twins since they were born, so that helps me understand the feeling I had while doing it, and I still feel a bit of that feeling even while thinking about it.

The question I'm struggling with is this: is any of this an experience of God?

Years ago, when one of my sons had drifted away from attending worship, I asked him about it. He said he could worship on a boat as he fished as well as he did in church. I countered with, "But, do you?" I don't doubt there may be something spiritual about being on the ocean or a beautiful lake, watching sun burnished water. Maybe even the moment the struggle to land a fish ends well can be spiritual. But is that moment an acknowledgement of God's transcendent, or grace, or mercy? Or is it just a moment with the ordinary is replaced by something different?

I think I want a spiritual moment to not only be transcendent of the ordinary, but also a moment when God's presence is tangible and acknowledged. Such a moment first happened to me when it dawned on me that Jesus didn't just die for the sins of the world in the abstract, but that he died, in the words of John Wesley in a similar moment, "He died for me, even me." There are certain moments in the Eucharist that feel spiritual to me, such as, when the Host is elevated, or when I receive the bread or wine. But, in truth, I don't always experience such moments as spiritual. It seems it very much depends on how receptive I am to the moment being a transcendent experience of God.

Another thought I have about this is that a moment may contain in it an awareness of God and, therefore be spiritual, but not evoke the response of awe and worship that perhaps is, or dare I say, should be, part of the moment to really qualify as spiritual. Put another way, Moses knew God was in the burning bush. He clearly felt his presence. But it didn't end there. He hid his face because he felt unworthy to be in that presence.

I'm a bit afraid, that for many of us, it's possible to be in worship and not experience God, just as it is to have a spiritual moment and not experience God. We may find comfort in looking at a lake or a sunset, or a newborn baby, just as we may find comfort in following a familiar ritual. Whether or not we are worshiping God in those moments seems to be a very different matter.

I think.

Confusingly yours, Jerry+

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Flesh and Spirit

Paul is well known for his use of the word “flesh” which he usually contrasts with the word “spirit.”  Typical of this usage is a reading from Galatians that was the Proper Epistle a few weeks ago in which he contrasts works of the flesh and works of the Spirit.

“Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want...Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these....By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

When Paul contrasts the works of the flesh with the fruits of the Spirit, he’s not talking about flesh in the way we often think of it. He’s referring to that part of us that is alienated from God, the unruly and obstinate part of our inner self that doesn’t want to be told what to do. It’s a strong part of us. Consider how hard it is to pray for five or ten minutes without your mind wandering to other things. Or try fasting and see how much you think about food.

In contrast, when Paul talks about Spirit, he’s talking about that part of us that is open to God. It’s that part of us that desires to be in communion with God, to feel God’s presence and touch. When that part of us is developed and nurtured, we begin to live out our baptism, to keep our promises to God, to live as if we are citizens of God’s Kingdom already.

Paul says, when that part is ascendant in us, people around us can tell because of how we act. We love others by showing concern for their wellbeing as if it were our own, we feel and express joy in life, we have an inner peace that centers us and banishes anxiety, we can be patient with those who try us, we’re kind to others, we’re generous with our time, our talents and our treasure, and we’re gentle in our dealings with our neighbor and our adversaries.

One other interesting thing about the works of the Spirit. Paul calls them “gifts.” In other words, they are not sought by us as much as they are given to us when we nurture that part of us that desires to be God’s child. That said, I need to say one more thing about human behavior. I know you can behave your way into a new attitude or character. It’s not the case that you need to be healed in some way before you can be “good.” If you desire to be “good,” that is, if you desire to have the gifts of the Spirit, you can begin to behave as if you do. The very fact that you desire it, indicates that some part of you wishes to communion with God, to be open to God. So, as you begin to amend your actions, those behaviors will be developed as gifts.

Something to think about.

In the Spirit, Jerry+

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Children and Communion

 The long custom in The Episcopal Church is to invite to Holy Communion all persons who are admitted to communion in their own tradition.  In practice, this is often spoken of as inviting “all baptized Christians” to join us around the altar.

Other churches differ. In the Roman Catholic Church, children are admitted to communion at an early age, usually about 6 or 7 years old. After some preparatory work, they experience their “first communion.” Confirmation comes later.  By contrast, in the Orthodox Churches, babies are baptized and confirmed at the same time and admitted to communion right away--receiving the wine on a spoon. This approach emphasizes the grace of baptism and the full membership of each baptized child.  
Anglican tradition supports such practices in another way.  

Our tradition suggests that a very good way to grow spiritually is to “experience then understand.”  The idea of baptism followed by confirmation is an example of this.  One receives God’s grace through baptism, but only later does one come to understand what has taken place.  Some have suggested, and indeed, the practice was at one time, that not all children of any age should receive, but that children come to a point of appreciation and readiness to share fully in the Eucharist.  And while we may not have had a “first communion” (though some more Anglo-Catholic parishes did) we wanted our children to “know what they were doing.”  However, as far back as the 1970 General Convention of The Episcopal Church, admission to Communion of baptized but unconfirmed children was authorized without comment on their age.

Let me say more about their “understanding” what they are doing.  It is important that all who receive communion appreciate the importance and wonder of what they are sharing in, but “understanding” can be a difficult criterion to apply. Would we would want to exclude those with learning difficulties from receiving communion because their conceptual skills are not as ours?  I doubt it.

There are a couple of other things to take into account as well.  First, the 1979 Book of Common Prayer makes clear that Baptism is the initiatory rite of the Christian Community. In the words of the Catechism, “Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God.”  [p. 858 BCP]
Second, there is a movement within western Christendom to affirm baptism as the only necessary act of initiation into the Church Universal.  The “Welcome” we say as a congregation to a newly person emphasizes this: “We receive you into the household of God.  Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.”  This is why many Christian groups, beginning in Apostolic times, have never resisted baptizing infants—not because we fear that unbaptized children might be damned, but because we want children to be incorporated into the Body of Christ and “branded” as God’s own. Having said this, we cannot logically exclude baptized children, full members of the Church, from Holy Communion.  Their baptism is not incomplete in some way because of their age.

But what of preparation?  All of us promise at the baptism of children and adults to help them grow in the faith.  And we all have the responsibility to help our children understand this Great Mystery.  We can rely on Children’s Chapel, on formation, and on word of mouth to help us help them understand; we can use printed resources to help us as parents teach them.  But this is really more about fully appreciating Communion; not “becoming ready.”  Still, parents can decide that they want their children to wait and the sky will not fall. 

Peace, Jerry+