Friday, March 7, 2014

Think on what things?? Friday after Last Epiphany (Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 / Philippians 4:1-9 / John 17:9-19)

"Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. ... and the God of peace will be with you."

Paul is challenging the Philippians on where they place their attention, exhorting them to find what is life giving and right in the world around them. No small task. In fact, these words could have been written right here and now for us.

I don't know about you, but it feels increasingly hard to think about these things which Paul commends. It's almost as if we are set in a world where "whatever is false, whatever is degrading, whatever is unjust, whatever is corrupt, whatever is ugly, whatever is rude, if there is any mediocrity, if there is anything worthy of debasing" it is those things upon which our minds are enticed to think.

When I was young, the news cycle was the 6 o'clock news on television and it lasted one hour. That was it. Yes, we saw violence and bloodshed (especially during the Vietnam War), but it lasted one hour and came to us only on a television set.

Now we live in a 24/7/365 news cycle where not only do we see it on television, we are bombarded with it on our smartphones, computers, Facebook pages, Twitter. Television has had to compete with these other data streams and now attempts to pass off opinion as fact (yes, Fox News, I'm talking about you) and the more crass, obnoxious, and partisan, the better.

And this is before we consider the content of what we are seeing. Syria, Southern Sudan, Ukraine and the Crimea are at war and violence is everywhere - and we see it 24/7/365. And we are getting numb to the whole thing. One can only absorb so much before you shut down.

In Lent, we are called to self-examination and self-denial. I confess I'm at a place in life where the "low hanging fruit" is to see what is wrong with our world than what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent and worthy of praise. Perhaps for me, it is time to fast from the constant barrage of violence and attend to what is life giving - to where the Creator is still creating.

This is not to deny evil but rather to pull back so the constant flow of images and words does not desensitize me into inaction and despair. A break to regain perspective and find love in the midst of the mess.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Repentance from Sin and Evil - the invitation to a Holy Lent

It's Shrove Tuesday: a day of feasting before the Lenten fast begins tomorrow. At Grace Episcopal Church in Brunswick, our youth will host our annual Pancake Supper to help raise funds for our Youth Mission Trip this summer.

I always feel like I'm standing on the brink on this day about to plunge into the abyss of Lent with its ashes and penitence. I once thought of Lent as depressing ... but I don't think that way anymore. As a cleric, it's a time of calm and reflection after the crazy, break-neck pace of the fall's activities, Advent and Christmas. Even more than Advent, it helps me slow down and focus intentionally on what needs healing and renewal in me and in the world.

I've been online today and looking at liturgical approaches to Lent from different corners of Christianity. I confess I like our Book of Common Prayer's Ash Wednesday liturgy and wouldn't trade it for all the tea in China. I did, however, run across a liturgy that looked pretty good and included Taize chant for the music. I was intrigued until I found the confession prayer which had the following phrase:
"We repent of our humanity."
Wait ... what? Repent means to "turn around" or to "change your mind." It comes from the Greek metanoia which means "turn around." Repent is what we do when we, by God's grace, acknowledge and turn away from Evil and Sin - the powers of Death which will kill not only the body but the soul.

But "repent of our humanity"?! As if being human is inherently evil or bad? As if being human is something to be rejected? And, if repent means to turn around, what is the alternative? To repent of your humanity and ... become a jellyfish? It just makes no sense. It is theologically and ontologically bankrupt. The Orthodox say that Christ became human that we might become divine. Our humanity is blessed, sanctified and honored by Christ's descent among us as one of us. This isn't something to repent of at all!

What we need to repent of is Sin. Admittedly, this is not a popular concept among some Christians who feel it sounds "too judgmental" or "too harsh" and so avoid using the "S-word" in their liturgy. Hence repenting of "our humanity" becomes some sort of cheap, sophomoric way of avoiding the real truth. Theology of the cross demands we not "call good evil and evil good" but name the thing for what it is. The thing we need to name is Sin and it is that from which we need to turn.

This reflection by Dr. Derek Olsen speaks this hard truth well. There is evil in the world. Jesus never wavered in naming it during his time on earth. We have a heavy darkness in each of us. The Church Catholic teaches that Sin comes from "the world, the flesh and the devil." Our fragile human nature falls into Sin all the time. But the good news is that the power of Sin to destroy us who are claimed by Christ in baptism has forever been broken - Sin does not claim us forever.

This does not mean, however, that Sin has ceased to be a presence in our world or in our lives. It is ever there and we are called to self-reflective vigilance as Christians to look at it clearly and unflinchingly - not just in Lent, but always. We are to acknowledge and confess the sin that has crept into the dark corners of our lives and release it to Christ who brings light and healing to us.

I invite you, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent this year. Not by repenting of the humanity you bear, but the Sin which clings closely and from which Christ longs to release you.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Home by another way

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, the traditional date when we celebrate the arrival of the wise ones who came to the Christ child with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Yes, there are plenty of jokes about these so-called "wise men" ... as in "How wise could they be to bring those kinds of baby gifts? Wise women would have brought diapers, onesies and casseroles."

But setting some snark aside (sorry ... can't get rid of all of it), these mysterious strangers come from a foreign land. They are "others" ... non-Jews ... outside the covenant of Abraham. I think it is fascinating this vignette comes from Matthew who scholars believe was writing for a Jewish audience and doing his best to convince them that Jesus was the promised Jewish Messiah. It is Matthew who includes the story of outsiders coming to worship and bring their gifts to the Christ child. Outsiders become the insiders and Herod, the consummate "insider" of his kingdom, becomes the one outside of grace ... and who will go on to command his soldiers to kill all of the baby boys in Bethlehem just to make sure there are no threats to his throne.

We still have our "Herods" with us. Turn on the news and watch what is happening in Syria and in the Sudan. It happened in Kurdistan and Srebrenica and Rwanda and Bosnia and ... a threat to power is still met with overwhelming force and brutality ... and children die.

So this is the world God decided to come into as a helpless baby? In terms of realpolitik, it seems like God might have come up with a better plan - one where some awesome show of power would lay a can of whoopass onto the Herods of our world. But maybe that's just it ... there is no other plan ... and no way out but death.

St. Augustine once said, "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you." Our restlessness only ceases in death ... death to ourselves and our way of living. Death to the power we try to extort from God and others. Death to manipulations and lies and exploitation. Death to our attachments and idolatrous addictions. And ... finally ... Death of the body itself.

But we hate the idea of death and we try to avoid it at all costs. We'd rather put our trust in ourselves than follow the path to death and beyond to find our real home. And when we do, we become tyrants. Perhaps not as obvious as Herod as most of us don't have soldiers at our disposal to send out to do our dirty work. Truth be told, we're pretty good at doing our dirty work ourselves. We keep trying to find our home in God ... but only by the paths we want to take ... and it's not working.

The Magi were warned in a dream not to return to a tyrant ... so they went home by another way.

Maybe this year it is time to give up returning to our tyrant selves and embrace death ... and go home by another Way.