The Prosperity Gospel and the Vengeful God Meet Hurricane Harvey

1Lakewood Church in Houston is the nation’s largest.  Occupying a former basketball arena, it can seat 16,000 people.  And, apparently, on most Sunday mornings, it does just that.  In the midst of the tragedy of Hurricane Harvey unfolding in Houston and East Texas, a lot of people noticed one thing about Lakewood Church:  it wasn’t open.  There has been something of an internet firestorm swirling around Lakewood’s famous pastor, Joel Osteen, who according to some reports has a net worth of about $50 million and lives in a mansion worth about $10.5 million.  Like most pastors.  It seems that, eventually, Lakewood’s pastor and its leadership felt the pressure of their critics and finally decided that they would make the church’s massive facility available as a shelter.  But much of the outrage centers on the fact that opening the church as a shelter was not Lakewood’s first instinct.

That firestorm was followed by another, this one swirling around the controversial and outspoken figure of Ann Coulter.  Ms. Coulter tweeted, “I don’t believe Hurricane Harvey is God’s punishment for Houston electing a lesbian mayor.  But that is more credible than ‘climate change.'”   Many wondered why Ms. Coulter would bother to be so specific about her not believing that the hurricane was the act of a vengeful God — or even to mention it at all — if she wasn’t actually entertaining the notion.  And, to be sure, there are those who are quite happy to believe that Hurricane Harvey is a manifestation of some sort of divine wrath.   It is a well-worn piece of “theology” that always seems to emerge in the aftermath of tragedy.

Lakewood’s initial reluctance to open its doors (when many other faith communities were doing so) and Coulter’s offer of publicity to the idea that the hurricane is related to God’s vengeance are both signs of the way in which so many people have become utterly alienated from the authentic expressions of their own religious traditions, twisting them into faiths that confirm their own tribal sensibilities and give them permission to abandon those who are vulnerable.

In Lakewood’s case, their reluctance is rooted in the theology Mr. Osteen espouses.  He is perhaps the foremost preacher of the “Prosperity Gospel” in the United States, if not the world.   It is an interpretation of the gospel that is hard to reconcile with most of what Jesus actually says and does, and relies heavily on a particular thread of the Judeo-Christian tradition that says that if one is prosperous, it is because God has blessed you.  Which means, of course, that the opposite is also true:  if you please God, God will bless you with prosperity.  I once heard a portion of a sermon Mr. Osteen gave, in which he said you could always tell people who went to Lakewood, because they were just a certain kind of person — the clear implication being that they were somehow better.

The theology that Mr. Osteen and his church espouse is not really Christian in any recognizable way — not when you take the history of the Christian tradition into account. But, beyond that, it is a theology that encourages people to think that if you have pleased God, prosperity will be yours, and bad things will not happen to you.  Hurricane Harvey upsets that fine theological balance.  A number of people of Mr. Osteen’s own very wealthy neighborhood had to be rescued from flood waters.  The hurricane did not discriminate between the prosperous and the poor.  I suspect that part of the reason Lakewood was slow to think about how it could help people was because, according to its theology, such a thing should not have happened.  And the dawning reality of it has, I suspect, created a kind of theological paralysis.   Mr. Osteen’s challenge now will be to somehow reconcile his Prosperity Gospel with recent events.

One can only hope that he does not retreat into the Vengeful God paradigm that Ms. Coulter took the time to advertise in wishing to say she did not believe it.  Drawing again on a particular thread of the biblical tradition, people who are not as generous as Ms. Coulter in denying that they might believe such a thing imagine that any tragedy is the result of divine disfavor.  Their image of God is one in which God freely rains down disaster on those who displease Him.   And they point to any number of passages from the Hebrew Bible that they believe affirm this, and a few from the New Testament.   Though, again, such a view can hardly be reconciled with most of what Jesus says and does.  But perhaps it is more comfortable to tell one’s self that God is punishing your community for the things that you don’t like about it than to admit that perhaps bad things do, indeed, happen to good people.  Sometimes very bad things.

For Christians, it should be clear that we are meant to process the events of the world around us through the lens of the life and teaching of Jesus.  It is that same Jesus who works so hard, as the gospels tell us, to reframe some of the older beliefs that belonged to his tradition and can be found in parts of the Bible.  Jesus was very clear that God does not afflict people.  Jesus was very clear that God does not make people vulnerable, but rather seeks to be near those who are vulnerable and to support them.   Jesus makes it clear that wealth is, in no way, an indication of whether God likes you or not.  If you find that difficult to believe, then I suggest you read the gospels.  Try Mark — it’s short.

Jesus also makes it clear that our human ways of thinking about these things often lead us into trouble.  When our God becomes too much like us — exulting in prosperity and confirming our prejudices by punishing those we don’t like — then we have wandered far from the God who is, and have fallen on our knees before an idol of our own making.  Which is, perhaps, the greatest danger to which people of faith are subject.

So donate to support the people of Houston and East Texas — and stop trying to come up with a theology that will neatly explain why it happened by scapegoating other people.    Science can tell us why it happened.  Theology is meant to teach us how to respond to it, and to break open our hearts (and our doors) to our own vulnerability, and that of others.

And They Had Everything in Common: Re-Imagining God’s Dream for Humanity

On Sunday, May 7, I was invited to Preach at Stanford University’s Memorial Church in their regular Sunday service, University Public Worship.  That sermon is what follows.  Before you read it, I want to just make an observation about it.  The invitation to preach at Stanford came with an invitation to preach something challenging.  And I think this sermon takes that invitation seriously.  I am aware that, read through a certain lens, some of what I say in this sermon could be interpreted to suggest that people who voted for the current administration are somehow bad people.  That is not what I believe.  This sermon explores how the Christian movement is seen, particularly by young people — which seemed appropriate in a university setting.  It also explores the way in which voting patterns among the majority of white evangelical and mainline Protestant Christians in the last election contribute to that perception.  It also asks whether the priorities of the current administration are consistent with what we see Jesus doing and teaching in the gospels.  I would suggest that this is always an important question for religious people to be asking, Christian or otherwise, regardless of the party or administration in power.  I do not advocate, in any way, that any religion should dictate national policy.  But people who take their religion seriously cannot, it seems to me, keep that commitment completely separate from the public policy choices they would advocate.  

Scriptural Texts: Acts 2:42-47 & John 10:1-10

Over the years, I’ve been on the Stanford campus many times, and, as far as I can tell, there are no sheep at Stanford.  And there is no degree offered in the art of shepherding.   That, of course, is just a sign of what is true in our society generally:  namely, that very few of us know much about sheep or shepherds, and that the vast majority of us live at quite a distance from the kind of life that sheep and shepherding represent. The people of Jesus’ time lived much closer to the land.  Agricultural life was more of an immediate reality to them.  And so the metaphors of sheep and shepherds used in this morning’s Gospel would have been much more familiar.  But, for us, these metaphors are far less accessible.

About 30 years ago, I knew a priest who attempted to make these metaphors more alive for his congregation.  His name was Ted Rice, a now-retired Episcopal priest, and he actually had a brother who was a shepherd in New England.  Ted described what he witnessed of the relationship between his shepherd brother and his flock.  It so happened while Ted was visiting his brother, that there was a particular ewe who was having a great deal of difficulty giving birth.  Ted described how his brother had stayed with the ewe throughout the night, tending to her, keeping her calm, even singing to her.  His brother knew exactly what to do, how to reach in and gently turn the lamb and, ultimately, make it possible for the young sheep to be born, without endangering its mother’s life.  Ted was deeply moved by the tender relationship between his brother and the sheep, by the obvious love that bound them to each other, by the degree to which his brother placed the needs of his flock before his own.  As I listened to Ted describe this, what came to mind for me was the image of the shepherd as midwife, one who attends another in order to help bring to birth new life.

So when I hear Jesus being cast in the role of the shepherd, I always find myself returning to this story of Ted’s brother, and the connection it suggests between the image of the shepherd and the image of the midwife.  Jesus, it seems to me, is trying to bring forth new life in and among those who are his followers.  He comes to us as shepherd and midwife to bring a new way of living and being to birth, and he entrusts this same mission to the community his followers founded, to that community that we call “church”.  Elsewhere in John’s Gospel, in the 21st chapter, the Risen Christ walks with the disciple Peter on the beach and says to Peter, who represents the church as a whole, that a consequence of loving Jesus is that Peter – and the community he and the others are about to create – is to take on the mission of feeding and tending the sheep.  In other words, to do for others what Jesus has done for them.

And so, centuries later, it seems legitimate to ask the question, is the church living up to this calling?  Are we, in our various Christian communities, helping to bring to birth new ways of living and being as Jesus did in his own life and work?

As I survey the state of Christianity today, I have to say that I think the short answer to that question is, much of the time, “No.”  One sign of this is the image that Christianity currently enjoys in the public square, particularly among younger people.   Studies have shown that among people 16 to 29 who do not go to church, Christianity is frequently described as “judgmental”, “hypocritical”, and “old fashioned.”  When you combine the low impression of Christianity among increasing numbers of young people with the degree to which that same demographic tended to favor candidates like Bernie Sanders or Gary Johnson in the last election, what emerges, I think, is a view of the church as an institution which does not challenge the status quo of our world but is seen to reinforce it, often at the expense of those among us who, in some way or other, would be considered vulnerable.  In other words, the church is often seen as supporting the world’s ways of living and being, rather than helping to bring to birth something new.

This view of the church stands as quite a contrast to the image of the Christian community that we catch a glimpse of in this morning’s reading from the book of Acts.  Let’s listen again to the way that early community is described: “All who believed were together and had all things in common:  they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”

This description is of a church that has not yet become an institution, a community of Jesus’ followers who enjoy no privileged position in society, who have no power at all, who are a small minority with respect to both the Jewish community around them and the larger Roman Empire of which Judea had become a part.  What shapes the life of that community is set forth in the first line of the passage:  they “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  And the results of that devotion are made clear when it says, “Awe came upon everyone…they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of the people.”   This certainly sounds to me like a community in which something new is being born, a community that is adopting a new way of living and being that is based not on status or wealth, but on the notion that baptism is the great leveler, that being in Christ places everyone on the same footing.  It is a community that provides an alternative to the social structures of the time, in which status and wealth matter very much, and in which the poor and the vulnerable are often marginalized and left to fend for themselves.  And it seems to have been deeply attractive.

This early form of Christian community, and others that sprang up in the decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, were alternative communities whose values, in fact, undermined those of the prevailing culture.  And it was not so much an alternative to Jewish culture out of which, after all, Christianity was born, but an alternative to Roman culture, particularly as increasing numbers of new Christians were not drawn from Judaism but from the Roman, Gentile world.  We see this very much in the writings of St. Paul, who – though he was very concerned about figuring out how to get his fellow Jews to become followers of Jesus – was principally focused for most of his life on planting churches among the Gentiles.  Remember that Paul’s writings are the earliest to be found in the New Testament, and in them we find the language used by the early church to talk about Jesus.

The Roman Catholic priest and scholar, John Dominic Crossan, has argued that this language – the terms “Lord”, “Son of God”, “Kingdom of God”, “Savior” – is all drawn from the language that Romans used to talk about their emperor and his empire.  Indeed, while we are accustomed to speaking of the “Roman Empire”, Romans of the time were more accustomed to thinking of it as the “Kingdom of Rome.”  Caesar was Lord and Savior, and the term “son of god” was part of his title.  In his letters, Paul takes all of this language and applies it to Jesus – clearly establishing Jesus as a rival to Caesar, and the Christian community as an alternative to  Roman society.  For Paul and for early Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus marked the in-breaking of the kingdom of God into the world, which pointed to a way of living and being that challenged the values of the kingdom of Rome. Caesar’s titles were emptied of the power that they were meant to convey, and their meaning redefined in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, which revealed that real power lay in sacrificial self-giving, in radical love, in embracing the inherent beloved-ness of every person as a child of God.  Far from supporting the status quo, far from being allied with wealth and power, the early church was truly a countercultural presence beneath Roman society, a “new thing” coming into the world that was most attractive to those who benefited the least from the prevailing social norms and structures, as well as to those who may have benefited from them, but who could see the injustices inherent within them.

All of this, of course, changed in the fourth century, when the Roman Emperor Constantine had his mysterious conversion experience, part of which was a belief that the Christian Christ was the one to whom he owed thanks for his decisive victory over his brother, which allowed him to consolidate his power.  In what was really a remarkably short span of time, the Christian community moved from being this alternative, even subversive presence beneath Roman society to being an institution that was on its way to enjoying great privilege and power at the heart of Roman society.  The church, over time, certainly changed Rome, but Rome also changed the church.  Gone, for example, was the early church’s deep commitment to pacifism, which could not be maintained once Christianity became the official religion of the greatest military power in the ancient world.  The conversion of Rome to Christianity was a decisive historical turning point, and it set Christianity on a path that transformed it from being an alternative form of community that nurtured new forms of relationship to being a cultural institution that blessed the powerful, reinforced prevailing social, cultural, and economic norms, and helped keep women and the poor in their places.

Today, we are part of a Christian movement that has traveled a very long way from what is described in the book of Acts.   We are not seen as the shepherd-midwife who nurtures new forms of relationship and works to help bring to birth new life, but rather as that ancient relative at the family gathering who laments the loss of the way things used to be and occasionally yells at the neighbors to get off the lawn.  Increasingly, we no longer enjoy the “goodwill of the people” because they sense that we have somehow lost the soul of Jesus’ life and teaching.

And that perception has only been reinforced in the last election cycle.  Last November, 81% of white evangelicals and 50% of white mainline Protestants voted for the administration that is now in power.   And setting aside the polarizing personalities that are a part of that administration and its congressional majority, let’s just consider a list of some of the policy positions that they are advocating:  a radical reduction in the numbers of immigrants and refugees admitted to the country; a construction of a physical wall along our border with Mexico; a reform of the health care system that most analysts agree would serve to favor the healthy and wealthy and disadvantage the poor, the old, and the sick; reducing or eliminating funding for the arts and other public cultural entities while dramatically increasing military spending; rolling back environmental regulations and withdrawing from the Paris Climate Treaty;  fundamentally changing current trade agreements or withdrawing from them all together.

None of these policy positions point to the birth of anything new, nor do they suggest new forms of being and relationship.   Instead, they involve a reassertion of the past and a denial of new realities that are emerging in our culture and in our world.  It is exactly this that the majority of white Christians voted for, and exactly this that a majority of young people voted against.  And those who are the principal protagonists of these policies mostly promote them under a mantel of faith in Jesus and adherence to Christianity.   And so Jesus and the church are put forth as the allies of the politically powerful and as blessing the policies that they choose to promote.

But none of this is really found in the gospels, in what we see Jesus doing and saying.  The community that Jesus comes to shepherd and to midwife is made up mostly of people who lived at the margins of their society, of people who had been cast out by the majority for one reason or another.   If you look at the healing ministry of Jesus, which was such a big part of what he was doing, notice that the illnesses he heals are of a very particular sort.  In almost every case, Jesus’ heals people of illnesses that had caused them to be cast out of their communities, because of fear and stigma that was attached to them in the ancient world.  He heals them, thereby nullifying the thing that caused them to be cast out, and then he returns them to their communities.  And when they return, they return as agents of transformation for those communities, because the people who had cast them out have to receive them back, and to do so requires them to change their point of view, to see these formerly cast out people in a new way.  Jesus does not build walls between people, but breaks them down.  Jesus does not seek to reinforce systems that protect the wealthy and the healthy, but seeks to change those systems, to force them to include the poor and the sick, the disadvantaged and the outcast.  Jesus does not encourage us to be preoccupied with our own desire for security, but invites us to step out of our need for security to discover that beyond the borders of our fear lie other human beings, just like ourselves, who are simply trying to live their lives in peace, and who simply want others to see their humanity.

Here’s what it comes down to, I think:  the default mode of an unredeemed and untransformed humanity is to live with a sense of fear and scarcity, and on the basis of these, to draw lines and create systems that keep everyone in their place.  Those who have the means to protect themselves and prosper do so; those who do not suffer the consequences.  What we often fail to realize is that living this way disfigures the humanity of all of us, planting seeds of war and violence everywhere.   The advantaged struggle to keep their advantage, and the disadvantaged struggle to gain some advantage.  The church has too often been a partner in this way of living, blessing prosperity as some kind of sign of the divine favor and assuring the disadvantaged that their reward is in heaven.

But as Christians, we are not supposed to be content with humanity’s default mode.  We are supposed to be interested in humanity’s redemption and transformation.   And as more and more people question the veracity and efficacy of the Gospel, as it is made known through our preaching and practice, we are challenged to recover the soul of Jesus’ life and teaching, to rediscover our role as shepherds and midwives who are called to bring to birth new patterns of relationship like those that existed in the earliest Christian communities.   We are called to re-imagine the kingdom of God, God’s dream for humanity, through that key line in the reading from Acts: “And they had all things in common.”   As human beings, we do, indeed, have all things in common, from this planet that we share to the societies of which we are a part.  It is only when we are able to see the common ways in which we are tied together, the lines of connection that bind us to one another, that we are truly able to realize God’s dream for God’s people.   We must nurture what Jesus seeks to nurture in us:  sacrificial self-giving, radical love, and the recognition of the beloved-ness of every human being.

If we fail to live up to that challenge, then we become the thieves and robbers who protect some of the sheep while leaving others vulnerable.  But if we can live into that challenge, then we become like Jesus himself:  a gateway through which we can re-imagine our own humanity, and the human community of the world.

Ashes, Tough Language, Hardened Exteriors

Ash Wed Heart“Lamenting our sins”, “acknowledging our wretchedness”, “contrite hearts”, “I have been wicked from my birth”, “turn from wickedness…and live”.   These are just some of the phrases that are a part of The Episcopal Church’s liturgy for today, Ash Wednesday.  These, and many others in today’s liturgy, don’t sit all that comfortably in my theological perspective.  Heard in a certain way, they seem to point people toward feelings of shame and unworthiness — something that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, have often been accused of nurturing in unhealthy ways.  And, in my own explorations and reflections, I have concluded that God is not a God of shame (click here to see an earlier post on this topic).

But, this language also does serve a purpose — part of which is, indeed, to make us uncomfortable.    I think that often, when we encounter a day like Ash Wednesday that offers us this kind of tough language, we are not encountering language that is meant to shame us but, rather, language that is meant to wake us up, to get through our hardened exteriors in order to get our attention.   The language of Ash Wednesday is meant to do just this, I think:  to wake us up, to get our attention, and to shift our focus.

This year, Ash Wednesday comes in the midst of a cultural period in which we Americans are hearing a lot of triumphalist language.  We are being called to be “great again”, we are being called to put ourselves first, we are being offered a vision of our lives in which Americans are the ultimate “in” people, and everyone else is “out.”   Including Americans who don’t measure up to the triumphalist image.    Americans have long had a lingering superiority issue, and it has been brought to the forefront in a big way.

But this is also a manifestation of something that is not uncommon among human beings.  We are quick to put each other into categories, we are swift to make judgements, and very often, rather than dealing with the person who is actually in front of us, we end up dealing with the image of what we have judged that person to be.   Many people have superiority issues — they want to be seen as better than others in some way.  Some people have the opposite problem:  they constantly see themselves as worse than everyone else.  Life is conceived of as a great competition in which there are always winners and losers.

The language of Ash Wednesday seeks to break all of this apart by reminding us that, in the end, we are each and all just human beings, trying to make our way in the world, and that each of us faces limits — the ultimate limit being, of course, our lifespan on this earth.  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  These words, given as ashes are ‘imposed’ upon the forehead, are the central words around which Ash Wednesday, and the whole Lenten season it inaugurates, turn.   They are words that are meant to equalize:  regardless of how better or worse than others we think we are, in the end, we are all the same:  we are all human, we are all given the same regard by God, and we are each just trying to do the best we can.

There is a great freedom in realizing this truth.  There is a great freedom and relief in having a space opened before us in which we are no longer competing, no longer measuring ourselves against others.   It is the space into which God always invites us, the space of belovedness.     That unconditional belovedness of God that makes it safe to be who we are.  And whether the world regards us as successes or failures becomes irrelevant.

Sometimes it takes tough language to make us realize this.   Ash Wednesday offers us both that challenge and that opportunity.

Faith and Action

pray-think-do

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.

My Brother’s — and Sister’s — Keeper

europe-refugee-crisis-father-and-baby-caritas-greece_opt_fullstory_largeThere’s a common expression in English that is used when we find ourselves in a situation in which we are being asked to be responsible for someone for whom we don’t feel responsibility:  “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  When we use the phrase, we are saying that we don’t feel that we are responsible for the person under discussion, or the actions they have taken.  In other words, we use it to say, “It’s not my problem.”   And, in my experience, it gets used as if it’s a positive statement, with the user sure that he or she is justified in feeling he or she truly is not responsible for this other person, and that this should be easily recognized and seen by those around them.

It seems that we don’t often stop to consider the source of that phrase, and the fact that in its original context, it is not meant as either a positive or defendable response.

The phrase comes from an incident in the biblical book of Genesis (chapter 4), as part of the story of the rivalry between Cain and Abel, who along with their parents, Adam and Eve, are meant to symbolize the beginnings of humanity.  In the story, Cain becomes angry at Abel because Abel’s offering to God is “accepted” and Cain’s is not.  The reasons are never entirely clear, and one might forgive Cain for being ticked off at this apparent arbitrary decision on God’s part not to accept Cain’s offering.   The key phrase in terms of understanding this is perhaps the line that says “God had regard for Abel and his offering”, which perhaps is meant to be an indication of Abel’s character as opposed to Cain’s which, ironically, is revealed in what follows.

In his anger with Abel (which is really misdirected anger with God), Cain kills his brother. In the story, God — who knows full well what has happened — asks Cain where his brother is, and Cain’s response is the one that has become our common expression:  “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”

So in this story (which should be read symbolically rather than literally), the phrase that seeks to absolve Cain from responsibility for his brother is a phrase that is used to cover up a murder, to cover up what is the worst thing that one human being can do to another.   It is a story in which Cain seeks to justify his disposal of his brother by disavowing any responsibility for him — by disavowing his connection to him.

God finds this response unacceptable, of course, and requires Cain to leave his home and to wander in the world.  Cain worries about his own safety, what will happen to him when he encounters other people who don’t know him.   Ironically, Cain worries that he will meet the same fate as Abel, but at the hands of a stranger.  God places a mark upon Cain which, in some mysterious way, serves to protect him, warning others not to mess with him.   But the effect of Cain’s act is that he becomes a refugee, he becomes a wandering soul without home nor people, and he must live the rest of his days in the knowledge of what he did.

One of the lessons to be drawn from the story is that we are not supposed to emulate Cain. In other words, we are never to say, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”, because we are to realize that we indeed are our brother’s keeper — and our sister’s keeper.  We are meant to recognize that we are connected to our fellow human beings upon this planet, and the connection makes us responsible for their welfare.   We are not to emulate Cain because we are not allowed to pretend that the well-being of others has nothing to do with our own.  And Cain’s wandering in the world is, I think, as a wandering advertisement for this truth.   The mysterious mark, whatever the authors of the story imagined it to be, was a mark of our common humanity, and Cain was a sign to others that they could not hurt him because he was them, they were he, and their fates were inextricably bound together.

We find ourselves at this moment in human history awash in refugees, people who have been forced to wander the world without home, place, or people.  Except that they have not been made to wander as a result of any crime they have committed.  Instead, they have been forced to wander the world because of the crimes of others.   At the same time, this rising tide of refugees has led to a rising tide of fear toward them.  Rather than directing our attention to that which has left them as refugees, we more often choose to focus on them as “the problem”.  And as a result, we are increasingly tempted to say, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” in response to the question about what is to be done for them.   There is a great temptation to say that we are not responsible for them, which means we have no obligation to welcome them or make room for them in our lives or in the lives of our communities.

But clearly, as the Genesis story is meant to tell us, this is not what God would call us to in this moment.  Today’s refugees wander the world as a sign to us not of that which we are to fear, but as a sign that we are all connected to one another, and that we ignore that connection at our own peril.   The mark of the wanderer demands attention and response.  Just as Cain was wrong to pretend that he had nothing to do with his brother, so we are wrong to pretend that the refugee problem has nothing to do with us.

It comes down, once again, to that most basic teaching of Jesus:  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”   And when asked by someone who our neighbor is, Jesus made it clear that our neighbor is the person most in need of our help.

Am I my brother’s keeper?  Am I my sister’s keeper?  Absolutely.

Hope in the Uncertain Hour

hands-751107_640Jesus said to the disciples, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”  — Matthew 24:36-44

This past Sunday’s Gospel reading from Matthew, quoted above, is a bit weird.  Jesus talks about “the coming of the Son of Man” (himself) — an arrival that is unexpected.  At that moment, Jesus says, “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.  Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.”  What is that supposed to mean?   The whole passage ends rather cryptically:  after exhorting us to stay awake, he says, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

This story has often been interpreted through the lens of a “rapture theology”, in which it is believed that Christ will come again, and that when he does, those who are judged worthy will be “taken” with him into heaven, and those who are judged unfavorably will be left.  In that theological frame, this is just the beginning of a long period that constitutes the end of the world.  But I am not a “rapture theology” kind of guy.

This year, this passage has taken on new meaning for me, as I found myself looking at it not through the strange lens of rapture theology, but through that of current events.

There have been a number of people in my circle who, as a result of the election, have been thinking that perhaps the world IS coming to an end.  And in what is, for them,  understandable anger, fear, and/or anxiety, it seems that a number of people are veering into hopelessness.   And, I get that.  I have in  my own life heard the creeping footsteps of hopelessness pacing just outside my door from time to time.  And it is tempting, especially when feeling overwhelmed, to open that door and let hopelessness in.   But — and I know that this may sound harsh at first — that is not what Christian people, at least, are called to do.

And in this present moment, when so many are tempted by hopelessness, I heard this passage from Matthew’s Gospel as being all about hopelessness.

Whatever else it may be, the arrival of the “Son of Man” — the arrival of Jesus himself — is nothing less than the arrival of Hope.  When Jesus makes reference to the “days of Noah”, he is pointing to a biblical story that stands as the symbol of a world that has absolutely abandoned the dream of God for God’s people.  Things were so bad that the authors of the biblical story could imagine God attempting to wipe out the whole of humanity.  But, as people of faith themselves, those same biblical authors could not quite bring themselves to a point of utter hopelessness.  Noah and his family are the symbols of hope in that story — or, perhaps more accurately, the fact that God rescues Noah and his family along with all else that lives is the symbol of hope in the story.

And so Jesus, pointing to this biblical moment when all seemed lost, imagines that he himself will show up when the world seems again on the brink of losing it all.  And he comes as the symbol of hope, as the bearer of God’s hope, as the reminder that we human beings, who presume to have the last word about things, in fact, don’t.   That is the divine prerogative, and for Christians, Jesus is that last word — and it is a word of hope, a word of life, a word of compassion, a word of justice.

We are promised that in those hours or days or weeks when we feel that all is lost, Christ shows up bearing God’s hope to us.   The question is, are we willing to make ourselves see it?  Are we willing to grab on to it and refuse to let go?  If we do, then we are the ones “taken” in the parable — taken with Christ into a reign of hope that then becomes the basis and energy for our thoughts and actions.   But if we don’t, if we choose hopelessness, then we are the ones who are “left” in the parable.   Not by any arbitrary decision on God’s part, but by our own choice.

Therefore, Jesus counsels us to stay awake.  Much of the Christian spiritual tradition has understood this call to stay awake as a call to maintain a guard over our hearts and souls, to remain vigilant to the creeping footsteps of hopelessness so that it cannot come up behind us and capture us.  Jesus asks us to remain watchful, so that hopelessness does not steal our hope.  The whole of this passage, at least for me, at least for today, is a call not to lose hope.  Is a reminder that as Christian people, we live under an obligation to bear hope for the world.

I have quoted him before, but it’s worth quoting him again.  Once, retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa (he’s Episcopalian!  Well, Anglican, but it amounts to the same thing) was asked if he was optimistic about the world.  He responded that no, he was not optimistic.  But he went on to say that he was a Christian, and so that meant that while he was not optimistic, he was hopeful.  Because, as a Christian, he had to be hopeful.

I understand completely that willing yourself to be hopeful when you feel that everything around you is crashing down is a very hard thing to do.   There are days when I have trouble remaining hopeful myself.  But one thing that Jesus never said was that doing this stuff would be easy.  In fact, he made it quite clear that it would be very hard, indeed.  But just because something is hard does not mean we don’t do it.  In fact, it usually means that it is very much worth doing.

In this season of Advent, as we contemplate the birth of God’s word of hope into the world, we might consider that the spiritual practice that we most need to focus on in this moment is the practice of hope.  It may be a difficult practice, and we will surely not do it perfectly, but it seems to me we must attend to it.

And one of the consequences of attending to it is to be empowered.  When people have hope as the basis of their thought and action, they can move mountains.  They can do things they never thought they could.  Hope is a source of strength and power.  Hope is what carries movements of justice forward.  Hope is not, as is sometimes thought, the result of putting on rose colored glasses and refusing to see reality as it is.   Hope is a sacred power that sees the world as it is, inspires our vision to make it better, and gives us the energy to work to make that vision a reality.

Which is why the evil ones of this world prefer that we remain hopeless.  Because hopelessness takes way our strength, and leaves us unable to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.  Hopeless people tend to lie down and be quiet.  And that is not what we need in this time.

So, my friends, this is a time for courage.  This is a time to refuse to open the door of your life to hopelessness and, if you have, now is the time to tell it to go home.  Because you are a follower of Christ, God’s word of hope to the world, and you choose to be a powerful bearer of hope to a broken and disillusioned world.

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.