Wednesday, March 26, 2014

“Be Careful with Your Liberty”: When our freedom becomes a loaded gun to others…

Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.
            Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists’, and that ‘there is no God but one.’ Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
            It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. ‘Food will not bring us close to God.’ We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling-block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall. (1 Corinthians 8:1-13, NRSV)

Right now in America in general, and in the Episcopal Church perhaps especially, there is a great deal of self-assurance that we know what the “right side of history” is about many things. This self-assurance may, or may not, ultimately prove vindicated. This post is not about that. It is about how we live in our assurance as Christians. Today’s Daily Office reading from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians brings this issue into sharp focus.

The Apostle is especially concerned in this letter with a group of educated, self-assured Christians in the “parish” of Corinth. This group seems to have taken over the common life the community there, and they are pretty sure they know what side of history they are on: the right side. Again and again, Paul has to deal with the affects of their attitude, which stinks—as my mother would say—to “high heavens.” The problem is complex and has direct implications for our own day and setting.

This group at issue thought of themselves as advanced in their faith. They called this having a special knowledge. This knowledge gave them freedom to do many things that others in the Christian community—especially newer or more fragile members—thought scandalous. This group of Illuminati felt they didn’t need to be bound by the silly conventions and petty rules of those who were “unenlightened” with this knowledge—and they made that very clear to their fellow-Christians. This, in turn, led to name-calling, disruption, and division in the Corinthian Communion. Sound familiar?

Interestingly, Paul keeps saying that he agrees with them in part. He, too, has a knowledge that has led to a glorious liberty. But, unlike the scene in Corinth, the liberty he experiences doesn’t foment division or discord. Instead, it calls its practitioner to a profound level of self-offering. And that is what always intrigues me when I read this passage.

Paul wants the “advanced party” in Corinth to understand that knowledge and liberty cannot be pursued for themselves in the Christian community. To do so means taking our eyes off Christ and his work in and through the Body to gaze at a mirror: the mirror of our supposed accomplishments and maturity. This results in a fundamentally arrogant way of living with others in Christ, rather than in humility and love. As he lays the groundwork for the great Thirteenth Chapter of this letter, he notes that Christ gives us the example of love over and over again…but doesn’t speak of some holier-than-thou “knowledge,” even though he has every right to do so.

Paul then goes on to say that you can be as right as rain in your theology (there is, in fact, only one God, and getting all wigged out about eating meat dedicated to another deity beforehand is really an exercise in superstition), but totally wrong in your practice of the Gospel…and here practice trumps theology because the practice reveals your real appropriation of that theology. If one’s actions are offensive to a brother or sister in the faith, causing his or her faith to buckle, then we ought to realize that we are injuring one of those “little ones” Jesus was so concerned about in his teaching. This, in turn, must temper the use of our liberty.

Observing temperance in regard to a freedom does not mean abrogating that freedom, or even being ashamed of it: it does mean, though, that others may never get to that freedom if we misuse our own. And that is very important.

I remember going duck hunting as a teenager. I had never been around guns before then. Some folks used their guns very wisely; but a subset of the adults did not, and one young member of the group managed to very nearly blow off his head with a shotgun. It was frightening. If I were a slightly different person, I would have become a total anti-gun maniac. However, having a strong sense that misuse of something is not a sufficient argument for prohibiting it, I didn’t go in that direction. It did cross my mind, however! Eventually, I came to enjoy firing a gun for target practice, but my experience with the misuse of this liberty made me very wary of the costliness of such folly.

When we think we have “arrived” as Christians, when we believe that we “know” something and are thus “further evolved” than others (a phrase I truly detest), then St. Paul points out we know nothing. Such knowledge is actually contempt under a rhinestone halo; it is also just plain old sin—sin against another member of the Body, and (thus) sin against Christ himself. Do we hear this, in our assurance? I hope so.

But what about freedom? Isn't that important? Yes, it is. But Christians must relate to freedom differently, just as we must relate to everything else in a radically new way when we follow the Resurrected One. By learning to think about others first, we gain a totally new dimension to our freedom: we find out that ours is not just a freedom from, but a freedom to. That makes all the difference and marks it as Freedom in Christ. We have the freedom to love, to serve, to model, to learn, to grow in humility, and to become more and more like Christ rather than more and more a caricature of our bossy, obnoxious, death-bound egos. That is real freedom, real power.

I grew up in a University town. Many of the people we knew there were very well educated and quite self-assured in their opinions. However, many times they were dead wrong about things, because it turned out they really knew a lot about one or two areas, and very little about most everything else. But, because they defined themselves as “enlightened,” they knew they were right, unlike those ill-informed yahoos the next town over. In a way, they had become some of the most pig-ignorant people I have ever met, and totally uneducable. Unintentionally, they became the mirror-image of a fearful, uneducated bigot: a arrogant, educated bigot. Neither species is especially attractive or winning, especially when it purports to show forth Christ the Humble Servant.

Whether it be the use of alcohol, our approach to the Scriptures, sexuality, the following of ancient practices in the faith, or politics, St. Paul’s advice directs us to offer everything—even our liberty—to Christ in humility and love. When we do this, the Holy Spirit is given space and time to show the Mind of Christ in the Christian community. When we don’t do this, the Church looks as squalid, political, and hopeless as the culture around us.

So, the next time you take aim at a "weaker" Christian with your knowledge and liberty, just remember that what you may think is a bouquet of flowers looks an awful lot like a loaded gun to someone else…and put yourself in their shoes. It might turn out to be a lot safer for the Gospel in the Church and the world if we did!

Collect for Wednesday after the Third Sunday in Lent

Keep watch over your Church, O Lord, with your unfailing love; and, since it is grounded in human weakness and cannot maintain itself without your aid, protect it from all danger, and keep it in the way of salvation; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Discernment: The Healing of Thoughts and Intentions

  The Lord sees our thoughts and the intentions of our hearts.

  The Lord knows the thoughts and intentions of our hearts. Without a doubt, every one of them is known to him, while we know only those which he lets us read by the grace of discernment. The spirit of man does not know all that is in man, nor all of the thoughts which he has, willingly or unwillingly. Man does not always perceive his thoughts as they really are. Having clouded vision, he does not discern them clearly with his mind’s eye.

  Often under the guise of devotion a suggestion occurs to our mind—coming from our own thoughts or from another person or from the tempter—and in God’s eyes we do not deserve any reward for our virtue. For there are certain imitations of true virtues as also of vices which play tricks with the heart and bedazzle the mind’s vision. As a result, the appearance of goodness often seems to be in something which is evil, and equally the appearance of evil seems to be in something good. This is part of our wretchedness and ignorance, causing us anguish and anxiety.

  It has been written: There are paths which seem to man to be right, but which in the end lead him to hell. To avoid this peril, Saint John gives us these words of advice: Test the spirits to see if they are from God. Now no one can test the spirits to see if they are from God unless God has given him discernment of spirits to enable him to investigate spiritual thoughts, inclinations and intentions with honest and true judgement. Discernment is the mother of all the virtues; everyone needs it either to guide the lives of others or to direct and reform his own life.

  In the sphere of action, a right thought is one ruled by the will of God, and intentions are holy when directed single-mindedly toward him. In a word, we could see clearly through any action of ours, or into our entire lives, if we had a simple eye. A simple eye is an eye, and it is simple. This means that we see by right thinking what is to be done, and by our good intention we carry it out with simple honesty, because deceitful action is wrong. Right thinking does not permit mistakes; a good intention rules out pretence. This then is true discernment, a combination of right thinking and good intention.

  Therefore, we must do all our actions in the light of discernment as if in God and in his presence.

From Treatise 6 by Baldwin of Canterbury (1125-1190)

            The above reading is the same one appointed for today (using a slightly more modern translation) in Fr. Wright’s marvelous Readings for the Daily Office from the Early Church (amazingly  still apparently available from Cokesbury, even though it is hardly the sort of “groovy” fare currently being promoted by the Powers that Be—buy it while you can). It repays careful study.
            Baldwin is discussing the question of how we discern. In this portion of the sermon, he treats the subject of thoughts and intentions as crucial elements of how we discern. He makes the point that God sees the total picture of our thinking and our intentions, even though we cannot. This is one of the consequences of being finite (being a creature rather than the Creator), as well as being sinful (broken, ill, alienated from God, prone to choose death rather than life). Because of this, discernment is often very difficult and requires much attention to communion with God in its deepest sense.
            No matter how many classes we take, consciousness-raising sessions we attend, or courses of therapy we undergo, our tendency is to skew things towards self-deception. The source of this can be within, from another, or from evil active in the world. No matter its origin, it is a fundamental problem for human beings. To overcome this requires cooperating with the Holy Spirit's work in us to develop a deep dwelling in the Mind of Christ. Only with Christ as our Head (as St. Paul tells us) may our mind’s eye be restored to its intended simplicity. When “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” then our discernment becomes that of Christ—and our vision is made whole.
            Participation in the Eucharist, prayer, fasting, forgiveness, study of Scripture, spiritual direction, corporal works of mercy, sacramental healing and confession, as well as pastoral counsel are all parts of this process. All of these things contribute to spiritual healing—what the Eastern Orthodox tradition speaks of as the healing of the nous, the “eye of the heart and soul,” the “mind of the heart.” Only when the nous is healed, enlightened, made whole may our vision be clear. It is this healing that Baldwin is speaking about.
            As a parish priest I see a great deal of struggle over this matter in the lives of those I serve. Because we live in a primarily materialist, consumerist, and psychological age in the West, the kind of healing Baldwin speaks of is very remote to many in the Church. Our deeply secularized sensibilities constantly work against us! We want discernment about how to live our lives, how to face challenges, how to proceed in major choices, but we insist on viewing events and our inner life through something that amounts to welder’s glass.
            What Baldwin speaks of is a kind of course of therapy in the Church’s medicine for healing the nous, so that our union with God—a union of wills—may proceed and we may advance in discernment.
            Such discernment means right thinking as well as good intentions. Good intentions often are related to our moral condition—the operation of the Seven Deadly Sins in our life, for instance. Right or clear thinking is usually connected to the healing of our hearts (in the full sense of that term). And this patient, careful healing is exactly what many find unacceptable.
            Like our forbearers who resorted to magic (a practice that is on the rise today), we tend to want quick, easy solutions to our problems: such solutions involving pharmacology, technology, and ideology (all those –ology endings should tell us something). While these tools may provide some help, they cannot take the place of true spiritual healing and the re-ordering of our hearts.
            Such a process is daunting when viewed from the outset; but once it is internalized and received as a gift of Love from God, our acquisition of the Mind of Christ changes our perspective from one of fear to one of desire for increased communion. The struggle continues, as it always will in this life assaulted by temptation and evil; but the struggle grows easier as we learn to love and be loved fully. It is this sort of “right thinking” which leads to the wholeness and integration that makes authentic discernment possible.
            One of the central characteristics of Lent is growth in humility—being grounded in reality. That reality must involve our own “inner geography,” as well as knowledge of God. It is just this sort of exploration that makes the Lenten journey a season of joy, healing, and refreshment by authentic repentance. All of our Lenten disciplines are there to encourage and deepen our hunger for just this renewal of our will to live in the eternal and life-giving Mind of Christ. This is one of the reasons that Lent should be taken seriously, deeply, and with an understanding that repentance is always the beginning of faith, both at the start of the journey and at each new stage.
            May this Lent be such a season of exploration and renewal, rather than merely a season of superficial grimness or a rebellion against the learning and potential God offers each of us!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Our Own Wilderness of Zin: Our endless search for a delusive relevance

The Wilderness of Zin…or of the Episcopal Church's
dry and futile search for a relevance
apart from its birthright.
The search for relevance in the Episcopal Church has often led to a denial of the very gifts we have to share with others. Too often in my experience the desire to be accessible, open, and inviting translates into bland, sloppy, and irreverent worship, teaching, and practice. Rather than achieving its stated goal, the Episcopal Church’s efforts have demonstrably led it into the Wilderness of Zin mentioned in the Scriptures: a place of irrelevance, wondering aimlessly in futility on the far borders of the community of faith.

I am thinking of this today because of a series of “coincidences” God brought to bear on my heart. I have been reading a number of books and blog postings recently about the way many more liturgically-rich congregations in the Episcopal Church are enjoying strong ministries even as they are often marginalized and ignored by the hierarchy. Then this morning we recalled Fr. James DeKoven on his annual commemoration, with his famous appeal for a sacramentally-robust witness in the face of a largely cerebral Episcopal Church. He was shunned and mistreated for his vision, but he was ultimately vindicated.

DeKoven strove to deepen our understanding of the Eucharist  as the central act of Christian worship, as well as asserting the Real Presence of Christ in the consecrated elements as a critical part of God’s active, transforming power in and through the incarnate ministry of the Church. He was a central figure in moving the Episcopal Church to embrace its catholic inheritance in more than the cool, intellectual terms then used. Because of courageous and faithful servants like DeKoven, the Missio Dei was deepened, clarified, and restored in visible and powerful ways, culminating in the 1979 revision of the Book of Common Prayer. It is a vision that has yet to be fully accepted, taught, or even understood by many at our altars or in our pews.

After thinking about all of this, I cast my mind over recent Diocesan Eucharists, clergy gatherings, and comments from many recent seminary graduates of my acquaintance, and found a great disconnect between our heritage and those who are seeking it today on the one hand, and the current mindset of much of our clergy (and perhaps lay) leadership, on the other.

How many times in recent years has one witnessed Eucharists at our Convention and parishes where there seems to be a kind of studied and sloppy informality, leading one to conclude that this isn’t all that important? I can recall a Diocesan Eucharist a few years back where the consecrated wine was being poured back into wine bottles haphazardly; our parish received a large batch following the service because one of our members was so appalled by the way the elements were being handled that she took as much as possible home to our parish, contacting me to put it in the tabernacle in cruets. She said that the attitude present by those left with the "clean up" was that this was pretty trivial stuff.

Other diocesan Eucharists now feature the standard display of nonchalance: as many people as possible serving in street clothes. The image conveyed is that the liturgy is no “big deal,” certainly nothing worth making a real fuss over; it's just part of doing business, and certainly not a transcendent experience of the divine.

The result has been a steepening decline of significance in our Diocesan worship and the kind of liturgy offered in many congregations. At Convention, it has become a sort of semi-embarrassing formality before the really important work of having meetings, taking votes, and getting to the pre-function reception. The morphing of our time together as Christ’s Body from the worship of God and a celebration of our call to ministry into a conference-room quickie would be risible if it were not so sorrowful.

A while back, I was at a gathering of clergy where one priest remarked that we needed more “innovative liturgy.” When I pursued what was meant, I was told that we needed a “Mustache Mass,” an event where (apparently) everyone wore an oversized fake mustache. This was, it seems, self-evidently a good thing. To express any discomfort with so blatant a trivialization of the Holy Mysteries of Christ was to be a “downer” and labeled a sort of buzz-kill—apparently far worse than anything I could imagine.

The fact that most of the parishes in our diocese actually showing signs of health are still—with little encouragement from above—holding to the Prayer Book and Hymnal as the basis of their liturgical life seems to count for nothing. The reckless experiments in worship organized around trends, groovyness, technology, “contemporary music,” and minimal preparation sermon forms (lots of “dialogue,” with little patient exegesis and connection to basic teachings and the practice of faith) continue.

Even though blog post after post, book after book, poll after poll tell us plainly that rising generations are hungry for substance—not gimmickry—we just cannot seem to hear their voices. We are profoundly wedded to a sort of  Christianity Light ™ that is neither particularly attractive nor all that joyful. Congregations, even in towns with growing demographics, continue to shrink because of an almost Cultural Revolution-like obsession with theoretically "relevant" worship and practice that almost no-one really finds meaningful or attractive. Gradually, parish after parish sinks out of sight almost without a word because the utter vacuity of our stance and ideology cannot be questioned.

What will it take for us to get beyond this pointless search for “relevance?” Time, I suspect. A gradual thinning-of-the-ranks is occurring: those who are opting for a deep embrace of the tradition—in High, Low, or Broad Church categories, or new forms rooted in the substance of the Anglican tradition—are likely to be the ones left after the winnowing process. The stubborn refusal to “hear what the Spirit is saying to the Churches” seems to be following a predictable path. God is not mocked, no matter how many Mustache Masses we celebrate, and there will be a time when those who are serious about witnessing to the power of God's glory will, like DeKoven, be vindicated.

When the coming generations return to the Church seeking the transcendent presence of God in the “beauty of holiness,” a great many of our red-doored temples will be closed, sold, and gone. But those that have been faithful—even if only partially—to what DeKoven called “the thing itself” (the presence of Christ dwelling in our midst sacramentally) will likely be what remains to greet them. I pray that the parish I serve and the one you attend will be among them. They may be among the very few with “ears to hear” while we wander in the Wilderness of Relevance.

The Collect for the Commemoration of James DeKoven:

Almighty and everlasting God, the source and perfection of all virtues, you inspired your servant James De Koven to do what is right and to preach what is true: Grant that all ministers and stewards of your mysteries may impart to your faithful people, by word and example, the knowledge of your grace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.