Faith and Action


As the inauguration of the new president was approaching, the National Cathedral in Washington, DC — which is an Episcopal cathedral — announced that, in accordance with a tradition stretching back some years, it would be holding an Inaugural Prayer Service on the day after the inauguration.   At least within The Episcopal Church, this sparked quite a controversy.  Many Episcopalians who opposed Mr. Trump’s election felt that the National Cathedral should cancel its service, so as not to imply that either the cathedral itself or The Episcopal Church somehow endorsed the new president’s administration.

For me, it was an odd controversy.  Never before had I thought of the Inaugural Prayer Service, which has always been an interfaith service, as implying any kind of endorsement of whomever had been inaugurated or his administration.   It was, rather, a moment to pray for the future — not a president’s future, so much, but the future of the nation to which each presidency is tied.  The fact that this year, many people seemed to believe that the service somehow made the cathedral or the The Episcopal Church an endorser of the person elected perhaps speaks to the shift that has taken place in our political universe.

In the midst of this controversy, the Most Rev. Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, issued a statement on the matter, and I found his words quite powerful:

I grew up in a historically black congregation in the Episcopal Church. We prayed for leaders who were often lukewarm or even opposed to our very civil rights. We got on our knees in church and prayed for them, and then we got up off our knees and we Marched on Washington. Following the way of Jesus, we prayed and protested at the same time. We prayed for our leaders who were fighting for our civil rights, we prayed for those with whom we disagreed, and we even prayed for those who hated us. And we did so following Jesus, whose way is the way of unselfish, sacrificial love. And that way is the way that can set us all free.

Bishop Curry, as an African American, spoke something that we needed to hear at that moment, and that, I think, we continue needing to hear.  He reminded the people who were upset about the cathedral’s prayer service — and, at least as I was seeing it in various articles and postings, seemed to be overwhelmingly white — that minorities and oppressed peoples in this country have been praying for a long time for those who wished them ill.  “We got on our knees in church and prayed for them, and then we got up off our knees and we Marched on Washington.”   For Bishop Curry, as for much of the African American community, much of life has been lived in this dynamic of prayer and protest, never failing to offer prayers for leaders with whom they disagreed and who often wished them ill, and at the same time seeking to hold those leaders accountable for their leadership.

Those who were disturbed by the fact that the National Cathedral’s prayer service are, I think, mostly people who have never had to live in this dynamic.  People who, like myself, have never felt themselves threatened by power in any fundamental way, and who, therefore, have never really had to contemplate the relationship between prayer and protest, faith and action.

And it also seems to me that, for many white Christians — particularly maintain white Christians — we have a long practice of isolating our faith from the way in which we act in our public capacity as citizens.  Many white, mainline Christians have not seen a relationship between their faith — understood strictly as a personal matter of salvation and transformation — and their political lives.   The institutional separation of church and state has been seen as also embodying a separation of religion and politics.

On the one hand, keeping religion and politics separate is not a bad thing, if we are talking about refraining from using politics or political institutions to impose our religion on other people.   On the other hand, it becomes problematic when we do not allow the values of our faith to inform our personal civic lives, because then the values that our faith holds up for us are not given public voice, they are not advocated for.  I am reminded of a line from the Letter of James in the New Testament, “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing” (James 1:22-25).  Too many of us have become too practiced at looking in the mirror of our faith that reflects Jesus’ words and teaching back into our lives, and then walking away from that mirror and forgetting about what we are called to do.  James sums up that call this way:  “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27).  In other words, for James — and, I would argue, for Jesus — “true religion” is one in which faith informs action.  And to be “unstained by the world” means to stand up for the values of the Gospel, rather than giving in to the values that the world may embrace at any particular point in time.

Bishop Curry, in large part based, I think, on his experience as an African-American among whom this separation of faith and action did not become a habit, puts it this way:

Real prayer is both contemplative and active. It involves a contemplative conversation with and listening to God, and an active following of the way of Jesus, serving and witnessing in the world in his Name. For those who follow the way of Jesus, the active side of our life of prayer seeks to live out and help our society live out what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself.” So we work for a good and just, humane and loving society. We participate as followers of Jesus in the life of our government and society, caring for each other and others, and working for policies and laws that reflect the values and teachings of Jesus to “love your neighbor,” to “do unto others as you who have them do unto you,” to fashion a civic order that reflects the goodness, the justice, the compassion that we see in the face of Jesus, that we know to reflect the very heart and dream of God for all of God’s children and God’s creation.

If we truly wish to build a “good and just, humane and loving society”, then we surely must act in accordance with those values.   And we also, just as surely, must pray for those who seem to us to be working according to some other set of values.  Because we are called to love our neighbor, and to do to others as we would have them do to us.  And that does not change, even when our neighbor is someone we really don’t like, or with whom we really disagree profoundly.

That is the difficult calling which Bishop Curry was holding up for us: the call to live as fully as possible into the dynamic of prayer and protest, of faith and action.

Love is Costly

241Recently, I was having a conversation with someone who struggles to reconcile the idea of a loving God with the suffering that goes on in our world.  The question to which this person returns again and again is, “If God is love, why does God allow so much suffering?”

In talking about this question, we spoke about love in the context of human relationships, and he touched on the death of his wife a few years ago and on a love he shares with a woman now.   This woman is beginning to have memory problems, and he wonders how it will feel if and when the day comes that she no longer remembers who he is.   In the midst of this poignant conversation, the words, “love is costly” floated through my brain.

Love is indeed costly.  The moment we sign up for it, we are not only signing up for great joy, but also for deep pain.  The human condition is such that making a commitment to love a partner or a child or a friend also means making a commitment to one day be parted from that person — either because of their death or ours.   And before that happens, the commitment to love also opens the door to other kinds of suffering:  the suffering of disappointment in the relationship, the possibility of betrayal, of misunderstanding, of fundamental disagreement about some important matter, and a whole host of lesser pains that dwell always as possibilities in the realm of human relationships.  We continue to choose love in the face of all of this because, in part, we are made for love — we cannot really realize the full depth of our humanity without loving someone, somehow, in some way.   We also continue to choose love because we have faith that the joy it will give us will be worth the painful parts.   And, we probably also continue to choose love because we don’t think about the painful parts.   After all, we commonly use the phrase “to fall in love” — which carries with it that sense that love happens to us, we are caught up in it before we consciously make any choice at all.   Love is indeed joyful — but it is also certainly costly.

It seems to me that if this is the case with human beings, then it is also the case with God. I suspect we don’t really think about love costing God anything, but if the love of God is real and genuine, then how could it not be costly?  There simply is no such thing as love without cost.  For Christians, the crucifixion is certainly a sign of the costliness of love.  It shows us that God suffers because God chose to love.  And it shows us the nature of this suffering:  that God suffers every time human beings choose not to love.  And God suffers every time we suffer.  It is impossible to know what the suffering of God is like, because we cannot know what it is like to see as God sees, to know as God knows.   But what we can be sure of is that if God loves, then God also suffers — because love is always costly.

In the moments when we are overwhelmed by our own suffering, or that of others, it is natural and understandable that we would wish that God might somehow intervene to end all suffering once and for all.  But that would require that God bring love to an end.  And that would require the end of existence itself.   In Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, we read,  “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends” (1 Cor. 13:4-8a).   One of the points Paul is making is that love, by its very nature, does not seek to exercise control.  “It does not insist on its own way.”   We do not realize sometimes that when we wish for a God who intervenes to prevent suffering, or when we wish for a universe designed to exclude suffering, we are, in fact, wishing for an absence of love.   We might wish that God would create a love that had no cost — but the physics of theology tells us that is simply not possible.

So the love of God cannot provide us with a life free of suffering.  But that love does assure us of something very important:  that it will never leave us alone.  “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God” (Romans 8:38-39a).  Which means that, in the end, our suffering is not removed but it is transcended and transformed into a greater depth that surpasses our understanding — if we allow it.

All of this seems to me to be summed up in a quote from the great Frederick Buechner:

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.


What Praying for Orlando Really Means

241In the aftermath of the horrific violence against LGBTQ people in Orlando this past Sunday — as in the aftermath of all the mass shootings in the United States, of which this one was historically the most costly — we have heard people call for prayer.  As a priest, I would be among the first to declare that prayer is important.  But not, perhaps, in the way most people think.

I suspect, based strictly on many conversations with people about prayer over the years, that most people who engage in the practice of prayer do so in the hope of offering some kind of spiritual energy to those for whom they are praying.   That exchange of spiritual energy is, I think, a very real thing, even though it’s difficult to describe and, at least at the moment, impossible to measure.  And, praying for those effected by the murderous rampage in Orlando with this intention is certainly a good thing to do.

I would also suspect that another large group of people who engage in prayer do so with the hope of persuading God to do something.  Indeed, most of the official prayer of the Christian tradition (as with the other Abrahamic faith traditions) uses language that is directed toward this end:  please God, do something.  Engaging in prayer with this intention is problematic, because if God does not do what we ask, we are left with difficult questions that lead us into theological territory that tends, more often than not, to make God look at best, uncaring, and at worst, like a monster.

What most people in my experience seem not to understand about prayer is that engaging in the practice is really about changing ourselves.  If one reads the Christian tradition carefully — and, I would argue, the other great religious traditions of the world — it seems clear that all of the various ways we pray are meant to prepare us for the deepest prayer of all:  the contemplative prayer of the heart, in which we seek nothing but to engage with and be engaged by the Divine Presence.  And, in the context of that embrace, to consent to be softened.  The softening of contemplative prayer — or meditation, if you prefer — is a softening of the heart, mind, and soul.  It is a softening of the ego and of the passions that drive the ego.  It allows us to see the ways in which we suffer, and how that effects our relationships and the way we act in the world.  It shows us the places within us where love is found, but it also shows us the gaps where love is not in us.  And, over time, it seeks to fill those gaps with love — so that we may be totally and completely love.

This way of prayer is, it seems to me, the way in which we most need to pray in response to what has happened in Orlando.  Because we need a softening to happen among us.  We need to step away from the anger and hatred and violent passions that carry us away, and ultimately prevent us from experiencing the Divine.  It is, ultimately, the only way that we can short-circuit cycles of violence and retribution.  It is the only way we can truly deal with the turmoil in our society, which is ultimately a reflection of the turmoil within ourselves.  True peace in our culture can only happen when there is peace within us.

So, indeed, pray for those effected by what has happened in Orlando, and send out your energy to enfold them.  Pray to God — but in doing so, please recognize that we are truly God’s hands and heart in the world, and if we are looking for God to do something, that something must begin inside us, where the still small voice speaks in the vast silent embrace of love that lies at the center of our being.  And so, then, go within, allow God to reach you in the deepest places of your soul, and begin to be softened.  And as you act more and more in the world from that place of softening, so will you become a catalyst for peace.

I wish to end with a quote from the Rev. Paul Fromberg, which captures so well what we who would seek to follow Jesus are left with in the aftermath of all this death and destruction.  What he describes is, I think, both the act and the outcome of this softening of which I speak:

I spent hours thinking of something wise to write, something disruptive to do about the massacre of my sisters and brothers in Orlando. It keeps coming down to the essential truth of the Gospel: Love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you. This is the most radical starting place for restoring the moral order of society. Jesus taught other-love and not simply self-love or family-love or tribe-love. Living out of his teaching means that the manufacturers of the AR-15 assault rifle couldn’t make weapons designed to kill our enemies. It means that the NRA would have to work actively for the sake of eliminating weapons that are designed to kill our enemies, instead of preventing our elected officials from passing reasonable legislation to stop the sale of killing machines. It means that instead of stereotyping, demeaning and marginalizing members of Islam, we would do anything in our power to protect their dignity and honor. But, as a nation, we do not believe in the commandment of Jesus, not to the point of radicalizing the national conversation about violence. Which is why the only thing I know to do is be converted to the love of God manifest in Jesus, demonstrate that love to everyone that I encounter, and trust that God can empower me in this love to act for the sake of enemies and those who persecute. Love is the most disruptive force in the universe – it always has been and it always will be.

—  The Rev. Dr. Paul Fromberg, St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, San Francisco

The Limits of Forgiveness

repentance1-300x223“Then Peter came and said to [Jesus], ‘Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven.” — Matthew 18:21-22



I have always carried with me a deep sense of God’s love.   While I have encountered many people who have struggled greatly with an image of God as judgmental, strict, demanding, and punishing, that has never been my struggle.   During my sabbatical last summer, as I worked on a writing project to put into words my understanding of God as known in the Christian tradition, I came to a realization that was really an expansion of this deep sense of God’s love that I have always had.  And that was that God is One who always moves toward us in a love shaped like forgiveness, compassion, and generosity.   I have come to see how clearly this shape of divine love is revealed and  known in Jesus.

And Jesus invites us into an imitation of this shape of divine love.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”  The term “father” (or, more accurately, “daddy”) is the primary term Jesus uses to talk about God, especially in John’s Gospel.  A little later in this same passage, Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these” (see John 14:8-17).   Here, John seeks to make clear that what Jesus enacts in his own life and ministry is an enactment of the divine love, revealing the shape of that love.  We, who are meant to do even greater things than Jesus, are called to similarly enact the divine love in the living of our own lives.   We look to Jesus as the one who reveals this love to us, and we see him constantly moving toward others in this love shaped as forgiveness, compassion, and generosity.

Within this context, then, it is not surprising that, in the passage from Matthew’s Gospel that appears at the beginning of this post, Jesus challenges Peter’s attempt to place a limit on one aspect of this love: forgiveness.   How often should I forgive someone who wrongs me?, Peter asks.  Seven times?   No, says Jesus, try seventy times seven (some variants read “seventy-seven times”).   I hope it is clear that Jesus is not saying, “490 times”.  Rather, he is using this mathematical expression to point to the limitlessness of God’s forgiveness and, thus, of our forgiveness.   God’s infinite love is infinitely forgiving, and this is what we are being asked to enact in our own lives, as we live into our call to be conduits of God’s love in the world.

This deepened understanding of the shape of the divine love has shown up quite a bit in my preaching since I returned from my sabbatical last fall.  Some of those who have to listen to my sermons might say it has shown up a bit too often!  Those sermons have always been, one might say, at a high level view.  That is, as we consider how we are to approach our fellow human beings in general, we are called to do so with a love shaped like the divine love.

Of course, people don’t live their lives at a high level.  People live their lives on the ground, within particular contexts, and with very particular people.  And, living life on the ground can include a lot of pain.   And so it was that I was recently reminded, by someone who’s life on the ground has included being the victim of emotional abuse, that this preaching on the need to approach others with limitless forgiveness has not been good news.  Rather, it has felt very much like the opposite.  It has sounded as though I am suggesting that there are no limits, and it has sounded to this person like an invitation to give an abuser a pass — and that feels like asking too much.  It feels like God might be okay with abuse.  It is asking too much, and God is not okay with abuse.

Hearing this very real testimony about very real pain has gotten me to thinking about the limits of forgiveness.   And it has helped me to see how limitless Jesus tends to be in the gospels.  After all, we are told that as Jesus was being crucified by his abusers, he said, “Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they are doing”  (Luke 23:34).   So what are we to do in the face of those who do genuinely bad things to others?  What are we to do with those who do genuinely bad things to us, things that are simply not okay?  How are we to live forgiveness and preach forgiveness in the face of these painful realities?

I’m not sure I yet have a good answer to these questions.  And, more importantly, I’m not sure that I have the right to do so in any more than a tentative way.  While I have certainly been hurt by others’ actions in the course of my life so far, I have never been victimized by someone else.  I am not a victim of abuse.  And, therefore, I do not think it is for me to say what forgiveness can or should look like in the life of someone who has been victimized.  I can have compassion for those who have been victimized, but I cannot enter into their experience.

One of the things that seems clear to me as I look again at Jesus’ enactment of the divine love is that Jesus does not accept the ethical categories proclaimed by the privileged of his own time and tradition.  Instead, Jesus places himself among those who are the victims of those ethical proclamations, and he empowers them.  He gives them voice.  This pattern suggests to me that when it comes to deciding what is ethical, Jesus does not begin at the center and move outward.  Rather, he begins at the edges, and moves inward.  Ethics are to be informed by the victims, not by the powerful.   One might say that Jesus does theology from the margins.  And, as we seek to imitate his example, we cannot ignore this aspect of his ministry.

So, where does this leave me?  I remain convinced that God’s movement toward us is, indeed, a love shaped like forgiveness, compassion, and generosity.  Jesus’ living out of this in such a limitless way is perhaps meant to challenge the limits that we tend to adopt — and, like Peter, most of us tend to impose a limit too soon and too quickly.  But this does not mean that Jesus does not consider certain kinds of behavior to be wrong. As he goes among the victims of his time, he is clearly saying that whatever happened to make them victims was wrong.  He is not saying that their victimization is okay.  He is not giving the powerful wrong-doers of his society a pass.  Indeed, his ministry among the victims of his time acts as an indictment of those wrong-doers.  We could, perhaps, sum it up this way:  it is never okay to make someone your victim.

It is tempting for those of us who have not been someone’s victim to suggest how those who have been made victims should enact the divine love when it comes to dealing with those who victimized them.  But that, I think, is wrong.  It risks making others into victims again.  Rather, we must be like Jesus, I think, and go among the victims in today’s world.  We must listen to their stories, we must hear their struggles, and we must ask them to take the lead in showing us what the limits of forgiveness are.  We must learn from them how our proclamation of the love of God is heard in the ears of those who have been abused.

God’s forgiveness may indeed be without limit. But to protect the dignity of every human being, there might indeed need to be a limit to our forgiveness.   We could, I think, give that limit a name: justice, which itself is a powerful and recurring biblical theme.  Justice is, of course, not revenge, but it is a clear calling out of wrong-doing as exactly that.  Justice permits no hiding, it does not allow wrong-doing to be justified.  It demands that the making of another person into a victim be acknowledged, and it asks for repentance — which is more than being sorry, but is a deep conversion away from the making of victims and toward a way of living that affirms and preserves the dignity of all the people in one’s life.   It seems to me that perhaps, in situations of injustice, forgiveness cannot truly be given or received until the injustice is acknowledged in the way that justice demands.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops” (Luke 12:1-3).  This is what justice requires:  a bringing into the light of all that is not light.

The love and forgiveness of God, where it is truly manifest, brings a light that illuminates everything.  If someone is holding on to darkness, if someone is truly refusing to allow the light to shine on the ways in which that person has caused pain to others, can there truly be forgiveness?  Perhaps not. Perhaps the forgiveness must wait until the darkness can be let go of, and the light can shine clearly.  Perhaps forgiveness needs repentance.

The Sound of Sheer Silence

soundofsilenceNow there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before God, but God was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but God was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.  When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.   — 1 Kings 19:11b-13a

Human beings seem to have a kind of natural attraction to power — both the kind of power that is inherent in being able to destroy something or force someone else to do what you want, and the kind of power inherent in both a well-articulated and delivered speech and in an angry rant.  The stories that gain traction in our culture (seen in movies and television shows, for example) are often stories that radiate power as good and evil collide.  The politicians and other sorts of leaders who gain traction in our culture tend to be those who who can rant with power.  Power is currency.   Those who have it want to keep it, and often to have more, and those who don’t want it try to figure out how to get it.

The Christian tradition is not immune to this fascination with power.  Church leadership has historically been very concerned with power.  And, we have imagined God as being the Most Powerful.   The biblical narratives that seek to introduce us to God are often stories of power:  God creating, God destroying, God punishing, God healing.  Religious people have loved these stories of the All Powerful God for centuries, and they reenforce the image of God we often carry with us — of God as the ultimate power-broker, who can do anything and everything.   We often find ourselves wondering about the ways God chooses to use this power — or to not use it — but we seldom seem to question God’s all-powerfulness.

In the midst of these stories of God’s power, then, we have this little scene quoted above, from the First Book of Kings.   It features the prophet Elijah, the “original prophet”, one might say, and one who occupies a special place in the Jewish tradition.  Leading up to this scene, Elijah has gotten fed up with the people of Israel, and has run away, believing that there is nothing to be gained by continuing his prophetic ministry.  He hides out in a cave. In the midst of Elijah’s crisis, God comes to him.   And that brings us to this scene, in which God’s “arrival” is narrated.  There is a list in this narrative of a series of powerful things that one might associate with God:  an immensely strong wind, an earthquake, and a great fire.  But, the story tells us, God was not in any of these things.  Instead, God showed up in the “sound of sheer silence.”

What a different image of God this is compared with the one we seem mostly to carry with us.  The sound of sheer silence suggests a number of things to me.  First, it suggests that silence is not an absence, but a presence.  We don’t normally think of silence as having a sound — instead, we think of it as an absence of sound.  But this text suggests that silence does have a sound.  That is, it has a quality of presence.  It is capable of carrying something to us.  There is something in silence to be discovered.  Second, this silence seems foundational to me.  Before there was anything, there was silence.  The biblical metaphor of creation is of God speaking things into being.  If you think about it, silence is like a canvass for speech — and for music, and for all other sounds.  Silence, then, is the foundation for everything.  And if silence is, in fact, not an absence but a presence — a bearer of the Divine Presence — then it becomes the foundation of creation itself.  Silence appears to be passive, but this text suggests that it has a power of its own — a power that, indeed, enables everything that is.

Mystics within the Christian tradition — and, indeed, within all the world’s spiritual traditions — have long appreciated the power of silence, and its capacity for connecting us  with God.  By plumbing the depths of silence through various spiritual practices, mystics the world over have found something profound and rich within it.  They have found in it the very sort of foundational, enabling power that this text seems to point us toward.

When we look at God’s power from the perspective of this sort of silence, it seems to me that it is revealed as a power that gives rise to life itself, as a power that seeks to anchor that life in the life of God, as the powerful foundation upon which each of us stands, whether we are aware of it or not.  And what the mystics and spiritual explorers down through the ages have tried to tell us is that when we are able to touch this power, we find ourselves drawn more deeply into the divine life.   As Christians, we would speak of this as encountering the Risen Life of Christ.  These same explorers have also spoken about how transformational these encounters are, particularly when we adopt spiritual practices that allow us to regularly encounter God in the way Elijah did — in the sound of silence.

Unfortunately, our modern lives are quite noisy.   As you think about your typical day, how much room for the sound of silence do you have?  Are there moments when you are really able to listen to the silence, to touch its power, and to encounter the divine life that pulses within it?  For most of us, I suspect that there are not very many such moments from day to day.  That means, of course, that we must intentionally create spaces for ourselves when we can listen to the silence.  Sometimes, that might look like it did for Elijah:  going off to a place apart, away from the noise of our lives.  But most of us can’t, of course, do that very often.  So we must look to create smaller spaces in the dailiness of our lives where we can meet God in the silence that is our life’s foundation.

As we create such spaces for ourselves, we might find that the silence is a little disconcerting.   Part to that will be because we not accustomed to spending much time in silence.  But part of that may be that there is some part of ourselves that knows that the silence is powerful, and not being familiar with that power, there is a sense of being unsettled.   In those moments, we should remind ourselves that this sacred silence is where we came from, and it is really the “place” in which we live and move and have our being.  It is the canvass upon which our life is painted.  It is, indeed, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.   If we allow ourselves to sink into it, and it to sink into us, we shall be anchored more and more in God.


Jesus and Hell?

241Many people seem to think that salvation, viewed through the lens of the Christian tradition, is about getting to heaven and avoiding hell.  But is this really the conception that we find in the teaching of Jesus?

Jesus only uses the word “hell” 11 times in the gospels, with most of those appearing in the gospel of Matthew. The term does not appear in John’s Gospel at all. Each time Jesus uses the term, the word in Greek (the language in which the gospels are originally written) is gehenna, a word that derives from the Hebrew name for the Valley of the Son of Hinnom outside Jerusalem. This valley, whose exact location is now disputed, is said to be the place where followers of Canaanite religion would burn children in sacrifice to their gods. As such, it was considered an evil and accursed place. Interestingly, in Jewish rabbinic tradition, gehenna was envisioned as a kind of purgatory in which souls would undergo a purification for their sins. Rabbinic tradition said that the maximum amount of time a soul could spend in gehenna was one year.

The fact that rabbinic tradition does not see gehenna as a permanent and eternal dwelling place for the wicked leads me to suggest that it is likely that Jesus did not view it that way, either. Though, admittedly, some of the passages in which Jesus uses the term seem to understand it as a place, not of eternal torment, but of destruction of both body and soul.

When the life and teaching of Jesus are considered as a whole, these verses in which Jesus uses the term gehenna seem outweighed by his other teaching and the way in which he lived his life. As a result, I remain unconvinced that, for Jesus, salvation was really about saving people from hell. Salvation, instead, appears as a healing of the soul, a healing of that duality that keeps us in a state of separation from everything around us, and from God. In the teaching of Jesus, that state of healing is what it means to be in the kingdom of God. In those few verses where Jesus does use the term gehenna, he uses it to talk about life outside the kingdom of God. And, in several of those verses, he suggests that anything that is keeping us out of the kingdom of God should be discarded and gotten rid of (see Mark 9:43–47, Matthew 5:31). Sometimes, I think that he uses strong language — like the term gehenna — to get our attention, to wake us up to what he is really talking about.

It seems clear from this teaching that whether I am in the kingdom of God or outside it depends on my choice. If I am willing to do the spiritual work necessary to enter the kingdom of God, and thus to abandon the duality of the egoic, or small, self, then that is what Jesus is inviting me to do. If I am unwilling to do this work, then Jesus warns me that remaining outside the kingdom of God is like being in a gehenna of my own choosing.

It reminds me of something St. Paul says: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phillippians 2:12b). This suggests to me that while God offers us salvation, that is, healing from our small self and the alienations that result from having our hearts centered there, that salvation is never forced upon us. God is not a God of coercion, but of persuasion. God invites, but does not force. Part of the spiritual journey is to choose to accept the gift of healing, to do the spiritual work necessary to live with our heart centered in God and God, therefore, centered in us.

Jesus said, “‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’” (Mark 2:17a). He is, it seems to me, pointing us toward this idea that we have a spiritual illness that requires a physician to heal us, not a judge to punish us.

The Blog Goes on Sabbatical

KorenGodReposingThis Monday (June 15), for the first time in 10 years, I will be starting a two month sabbatical.  Sabbaticals are one of those things that have been encouraged for clergy, and required by some churches, in these latter years.  As the name suggests, a sabbatical takes seriously the idea of sabbath, a central concept in Jewish tradition, but one which most Christians have really lost touch with.  The idea of sabbath has actually found its way into a number of different cultures and traditions, but the origin of the word really comes down to a single verse of the Hebrew Bible:  “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy,” (Exodus 20:8).

I suppose volumes have been written about sabbath and sabbath-keeping.  It was long a topic of lively debate in the Jewish tradition, something we catch sight of in the New Testament, as Jesus falls somewhat regularly into arguments with the religious teachers of his time about what sorts of actions are allowed and not allowed on the sabbath.  The gospels portray the religious teachers of Jesus’ time as being letter of the law sorts of people who were very concerned that the rules about sabbath-keeping be clear and enforced.  Jesus, on the other hand, favored a more flexible approach, famously saying that “the sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27), and thus suggesting that the sabbath should not prevent someone from responding to a genuine human need, even if doing so seemed to violate the letter of the law.  Jesus almost always favored the more compassionate interpretation when it came to interpreting religious law — something many of his followers have often forgotten.  For Jesus, people and their well-being came first.

My approach to sabbatical — to this two-month sabbath — will follow the more flexible approach of Jesus rather than the more legalistic approach of many of his religious compatriots.  The only really hard and fast rule I am adopting is to put some distance between myself and my congregation.  Not at the level of the heart and spirit, of course — that would be impossible.  But physically and virtually.   The other hard and fast rule (so I guess that makes two!) is that I will not be updating my blog between June 15 and August 23.   I do hope to be writing regularly during my sabbatical — trying to bring into focus a number of thoughts that have been rambling around my brain and my spirit for the past few years.  We’ll see how that goes.  But, in order to do that, I need to take a sabbath from the blog.  It’s been going a few years now, so in the unlikely event that you miss it, you can always review some of my greatest hits (he says, chuckling to himself).

As I stand on the threshold of this intentional stepping away, I return to that Exodus verse:  “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.”  I find myself rather attracted to that word, “holy.”  Clearly, the author of this line intended to make a connection between remembering to keep the sabbath and holiness (whatever that means!).    So it seems to me that part of what I am going to be about over these next couple of months in remembering sabbath is to also remember the holy — and to remember what is holy about me, about humanity, about this world we share together.  Many people have the idea that to speak of the holy is to speak of something other, set apart.  But I think that when we speak of the holy, we are speaking of what is deepest and most authentic in all of us.   Life has a way of making us forget that we are holy — and sabbath (and sabbatical) is a practice that helps us to remember it, and thus to remember who we are.

I hope that this summer will allow you to include some sabbath-keeping time, some remembering-you-are-holy time.  Because when we remember who we are, we remember who others are.  And then we can act in the world out of that consciousness — and the world really needs a lot more of that.  So I wish you sabbath and a remembrance of the holy, I wish you peace and some time to rest and recollect.  And I will see you virtually back on the blog in late August.

Peace and blessing to you all.