Friday, December 9, 2011

Paradox of Morality

Figuring out morality from a Christian perspective sometimes feels like an exercise in paradox. Not so much how to be good; that's fairly straightforward in theory, if not always in practice – love God and your neighbor; do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God; etc. Of course it can be a challenge to figure out what it means to love your neighbor in particular circumstances, let alone when you have more than one neighbor and their needs seem to be in conflict. But that's not what I'm concerned with here. Instead I'm concerned with why we try.

I do think we should try, but I find that I can run myself in circles trying to explain why. I don't think it's about avoiding punishment, trying not to go to hell, that sort of thing. That's commonly given as an explanation for Christian morality, and often levied as criticism of the Church – that it tries to manipulate people's behavior by threatening them with eternal punishment. But I don't think that's the case. I think that salvation, defined as reconciliation with God and promise of being part of the new creation, has already been accomplished for everyone through Jesus, and the only way to lose it is to refuse it constantly forever and ever.

So I don't think moral behavior is about trying to avoid divine punishment at all. Some of it might be about avoiding punishment in the here and now, by legal enforcement or social sanctions, but that only scratches the surface of the full depth of a well-lived life. I've been reading a good bit of N.T. Wright's work lately, and I find meaning in his presentation of the idea that we're called to build for God's kingdom, even as we live in the old creation. I especially like the idea that no good work will be wasted, all goodness begun here will be affirmed and find its full meaning in the new creation. And I also like his explanation that yes, we'll be rewarded for our good works, but that the reward will consist of something more like satisfaction and increased ability to perform and enjoy the work of the new creation – more like the reward of practicing a skill than of earning a wage.

The difficulty I have with that description is that it doesn't seem to do a lot for discipline, at least to me. It's wonderful to think that doing good is making a permanent contribution to God's kingdom, as well as helping out in the here and now. But that alone doesn't make it particularly clear why I should try to be more good than I feel like being at any given time. Why I should be attentive to others even when I'm tired, why I should work to keep and open mind and heart about whether the way I live is in accordance with God's will, why I should fight the temptation to brag or gossip or manipulate – especially if I can get away with it.

Yet I do think that I should do all of the above, and that when I don't, that's a failing I should repent of and ask God for strength to overcome. And even though I fail quite often, I think it's really important that I keep trying. But not because I think I'll go to hell if I don't, or that I'll be punished in any other way (natural consequences aside). I sometimes laugh at my struggles of trying to figure out if this or that behavior is okay or not, given these or those circumstances – and I laugh because part of my mind asks “according to who?” I find myself really truly not thinking of it in terms of avoiding punishment but still really truly being very concerned with what God wants – even though there's a large sense in which I don't think it'll affect my happiness at all.

And of course that's not quite true – if I didn't think it would affect my happiness somehow, I imagine I wouldn't care. Some sense of what we call happiness I think is just an internal motivation scale. I guess what I mean is that I don't think that happiness will be externally given to or taken from me based on my actions (again, natural consequences aside). The reason it still matters very much what I do and how I behave, even though I won't be punished for my failings, is that it's not about me. It's about God and God's kingdom and living out God's goodness. Serving God is in fact an end in itself – not serving God in order to be saved, to avoid going to hell, to have high standing in the new creation – but because God is God and is our very reason for existing and our only true life and fulfillment.   

Thursday, December 1, 2011


This past Sunday I went to church with a friend. It was a mainline Protestant church, and I learned two things from the experience: that liturgy is very important to me, and that I have to be careful not to mistake the way I like to do things for the way things must be done.

The church was overall very nice. People were friendly and welcoming, the music was lovely, we sang all the verses of the hymns, and the pastor seemed to be a genuinely caring person. We had a call to worship, sang a hymn, had an Old Testament and a Gospel reading, listened to a sermon, shared prayers, said the Lord's Prayer; heard an anthem during the offertory, sang the Doxology and another hymn, and had a benediction. It reminded me a lot of the church services I had as a kid growing up in the Presbyterian church. It was a very nice service undoubtedly focused on worshiping God.

And yet there was so much that I missed: crossing myself at various points in worship; sitting, standing, and kneeling at different times; blessing God's kingdom now and forever; praying the various collects; responding “Thanks be to God” at the readings; singing a Psalm; hearing an Epistle reading; singing a gradual hymn; standing for the Gospel reading; crossing my mind, lips, and heart for the Gospel reading; following the structure of the Prayers of the People; being blessed in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And, of course, the Eucharist (which the church I visited does have, just not every week). I missed the prayer of confession and the peace, the Great Thanksgiving, the Sanctus, proclaiming the mystery of faith, and of course actually receiving Communion and sharing the common cup.

I think there are three parts to my feeling of unrest from that worship service and my sense that things were missing. The first is the sense of doing something. All the “Episcopal aerobics” and responses and motions help me to focus on what's going on and feel like an active participant. There's a reason why liturgy is “the work of the people.” For me, that active role is what makes me feel like I'm worshiping.

The second reason has to do with a combination of tradition and theology. Not that the theology is actually hugely different. I've talked theology a lot with the friend whose church I visited, and we're largely on the same page. It was more a matter of emphasis during the worship. Starting the service by blessing the Triune God and proclaiming His kingdom seems to me to orient worship on the very essence of Christianity. Having the blessing in the name of the Trinity again affirms that central faith in who God is. Hearing an Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle, and Gospel reading according to a lectionary assures that you'll hear just about all the Bible over several years (and I think the church I visited does use a lectionary, though maybe not as strictly as mine does, and with only two readings, at least this past Sunday). And the language of the prayer book both ties in to all that theology and also in its beauty points to the wonder and mystery and majesty of God. Of course there's also something to be said for the language of worship to be understandable, not so far removed from the everyday language of the people as to lose meaning. Services in Latin are not for me. And I even prefer Rite II to Rite I. But for me the structure of the prayer book liturgy provides a richness of meaning, that these same words are used over and over and sort of gather the meaning of common worship spanning time and place.

Finally, I find that liturgical worship, and the Eucharist in particular, gives me a sense of community with the people I'm worshiping with. The peace allows me a chance to greet everyone around me, and I find it especially meaningful to do so by sharing Christ's peace. Getting up for Communion and participating in all the little bits of cooperation that make it happen smoothly binds us together, not all at once, but by doing so Sunday after Sunday, year in and year out. And of course the actual sharing of Christ's Body and Blood, in whatever mysterious way that happens – being “made one with God's people in heaven and on earth.” And of course this is true for the church I visited as well; we are all one Body in Christ, my church and that church and all other churches. The difference, I think, is one of emphasis. Even the sitting and standing and kneeling and crossing and responding is part of the sense of community for me, in that we're all doing this liturgical work together.

So I have good reasons to love liturgy and to love my church, but it's important that I don't let those get in the way of loving God and loving my neighbor. And I have the sense that if I'm not careful and intentional in my thinking, I could slide down that path. It's easy for me to forget that some of the things I consider to be important traditions of the Episcopal church, like celebrating the Eucharist every Sunday, are actually only slightly older than I am. I know I'm at risk for being one of the grumblers whenever the prayer book next gets revised.

But I need to keep in mind that the way I like to worship isn't the only way to worship. Liturgy works very well for me, and there's certainly nothing wrong with it, but God wants justice and mercy more than particular kinds of prayers, and worship without love is just noise, no matter how traditional it may be. It's an odd sort of tension, because I really do believe that liturgical worship helps me connect to God like nothing else does, and that it really is important and worthwhile for that reason, and the conversations and discernments we have within the church about how to worship aren't just idle chatter about ornamentation. And yet, I'm also sure that God is also well-pleased with my friend's church and with churches that use worship styles that I find almost painful (TV screens and praise bands come to mind). Even if it's not the way I worship, it still has value if it brings people closer to God and to one another, so it's important for me to keep an open heart and resist my urge to judge.

And some of that comes easily. I can say wholeheartedly that a powerpoint-and-praise-band church with true community and commitment is better than a liturgical church where no one is challenged or changed. The trouble is that I want to continue by saying that a liturgical church with love and justice and mercy is best of all, when really what it is is that's best for me. I won't say that I don't think God cares about our worship – I think He cares very much. But I think there are many different varieties of faithful expression depending on a community's history and circumstances, so that my natural sense of liturgy as being “the right way” is unfounded.

God of faithfulness and abundance, help me to balance my love of a particular community and tradition with a radical welcome for all Your people in their diversity of experiences and expressions, that together we may reflect your unending goodness in all its variety. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Excitement and Calm

A few weeks ago I read N.T. Wright's book “Surprised by Hope.” It was a really wonderful book about the Christian view on life after death and what that means to us in the here and now. The book was full of new insights for me even though the basic premise was exactly what I'd been taught at my church from the beginning. While I was reading it, and for several days after, I felt really excited about the kingdom of God. I prayed more often, and I had a really strong desire to do something to build up God's kingdom right now. But as is usual for me, this excitement was in some ways short-lived. I still had a thesis to finish revising, I still had my job hunt, my Christmas baking, my connections to family and friends (yes, and church) to maintain, plans to carry out, etc. I simply didn't, and maybe couldn't, maintain the level of excitement I'd felt before. But I think I learned a few things from it.

One is that good theological reading is very helpful to my spirituality. I read during most meals, and reading about God means I'm thinking about God and more likely to pray and to be more conscious about loving my neighbor and working for God's kingdom and giving thanks and caring for creation. Sunday worship and adult formation and youth leadership have this effect also, but books have the advantage of being right there and requiring no additional planning once they're present. There is, of course, the risk of getting too much into reading and thinking to the exclusion of serving and doing, but I found that the reading tended to support a sense of mission for me.

The second thing is that prayer is important, and I ought to try to be better at it. There's so much in the world that I can't directly change, where prayer is about the only thing I can do, so it seems like I ought to at least do that. But even more important is simply being in relationship with God – I think that's what Paul really meant by “pray without ceasing.” I'm still working out how to do that when I'm involved in a task that requires my full concentration, but I did have a few moments where it seemed like I was both working on my thesis and communing with God. I think a lot of it is to keep turning my attention back to God whenever I remember / He reminds me.

The last, and maybe biggest, thing is that having my level of excitement drop isn't the end of the world. It's great to be inspired and to learn new things and to have hope renewed, but just like in a romantic relationship, one can't be super-excited all the time. Eventually you need some of that energy for sticking with the day-to-day of working and playing and learning and loving. God isn't less present just because my neurons are firing at a slower rate or I'm not as flooded with dopamine. And good work still gets done and life still has joy within its routines. There seems to be an oscillation between intense excitement and calm work. Much like the liturgical calendar – the white seasons of Easter and Christmas compared to the green seasons after Pentecost and Epiphany. Add in the purple seasons of Lent and Advent for humble discernment...maybe the church knows a thing or two ;-) It's true that the excitement of new ideas (or joyful music, or enthusiastic youth) gives me a boost in my practice of being aware of God's presence, but it's also true that the effort of trying to practice my faith when the excitement has faded has value of its own.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Dealing With Disagreement

I don't know if I've mentioned this before, but a lot of my friends have a really negative impression of Christianity. And in some ways, I can't blame them. A lot of people have their main exposure to the church as an institution that insists on unthinking obedience, subjugates women, advocates destroying the environment, tries to dictate which consenting adults can have sex, manipulates people into giving them money, supports unrestrained capitalism, and expresses glee at the thought of everyone who's not in their group being tortured forever. I would want nothing to do with such an organization either. And of course I don't think the church is really mostly like that, though I am aware that those voices are loud. And I think the thing to do in response is be loud and not obnoxious – to do our best to live the Gospel and be open about our faith and to take opportunities to show what we think the church is about without getting in people's face about it and just annoying them. That's not what I want to talk about right now.

Instead, I'm trying to figure out what I as a Christian am supposed to do with other Christians who seem to be opposed to everything I think the Gospel is about. My immediate impulses are pretty straightforward: I want to disown them, to deny that they are Christians at all, and to try to take back the name for what I believe in. But I'm pretty sure I can't do that. The whole Body of Christ idea seems to eliminate that option. The hand can't say to the ear “I have no need of you!” (Or whatever body parts are in the actual verse; I didn't feel like looking it up). This is particularly infuriating when it seems like others are doing exactly that to marginalized groups. It drives me up the wall that there are members of the church who want to limit the participation of LGBT people or who think it's okay to refuse to minister to illegal immigrants, but I'm not allowed to respond by pushing back in the same way.

Which makes it sometimes unclear how one should respond, because even though it's not okay to divide the Body of Christ, it's also not okay to go along with injustice in order to avoid making waves. So speaking out is necessary. And sometimes there is mutual respect along with the disagreement. There are people who are pro-life who don't advocate bombing abortion facilities or lying to pregnant women and instead put their energy and resources into truly helping parents whose lives are complicated by an unplanned pregnancy. There are people who truly struggle with what God's will is for LGBT people, who have gay friends and who just can't claim that homosexual behavior is okay while remaining true to their conscience but are deeply pained by this. I don't agree with these people, but I respect them and I trust them to be people of goodwill. They're not the ones I'm worried about.

I'm worried about the ones who do bomb abortion clinics, risking the killing of doctors and staff (and mothers and fetuses). I'm worried about the ones who celebrate when gay youth are bullied or commit suicide in despair. I'm worried about the ones who claim that “a free thinker is Satan's slave” and help to drive my friends further away from what I still see as the deepest connection to the source of all life and joy. So I don't think it works to just say that some people think differently and that's fine, not when that leads to real harm to real people.

So somehow, I've got to stand up for what I believe the Gospel is about, without denying the humanity of those I believe to be seriously misguided. I don't think that means I can't oppose them in the temporal sphere. I think it's justifiable to say, (even if only in my head), “I recognize you as a precious child of God. I will take Communion with you. I will pray for you. If you are in need, I will try to help you. But I also believe that your attitude towards (LGBT people/illegal immigrants/the environment/etc) is wrong, and my conscience requires me to oppose you in that area. I'm willing to share my beliefs and listen to yours, and I hope that we can eventually be reconciled.”

Sounds all nice and rational, but hard as heck to do, even just inside my own head! Part of the trouble is that I often don't want to be calm – I want to be angry, and I feel like I should be angry because of what I see happening. And I don't think that anger is always wrong. Jesus certainly seemed angry when he cleansed the Temple and overturned the tables of the moneychangers. Maybe sometimes anger is useful to shake up people who need to be shaken up in order to see the truth of a situation. On the other hand, acting in anger also seems to run more risk of hurting people, and Jesus had a whole lot more wisdom that I have – I don't know that I can trust myself to choose appropriately when to use anger as a tool.

So instead it's a matter of walking the tightrope – trying to align myself with justice and with what I understand the Gospel to be, including opposing other people if necessary, but resisting the tempatation to dehumanize (or dechristianize?) them – in the words of C.S. Lewis trying “not to hate, not to despise, above all not to enjoy hating and despising.” Lord, have mercy.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


This past Sunday was St. Francis Day, and my church, like many others, celebrating by holding a blessing of the animals. My cats were blessed when they were kittens, and they don't like being among the crowd of people and (especially!) dogs, so I don't take them anymore. Instead, I followed the lead of a former deacon of the church by bringing in an animal from nature: they brought an almond bug; I brought a tree frog.

I like to think of bringing those wild animals in to be blessed, and then releasing them into the wild to carry their blessings to the rest of nature. A friend of mine liked the idea, but also commented that they'd always thought of nature as having its own connection to God, so that such blessings wouldn't be necessary. I don't disagree with the idea that the plants and animals have their own connections to God, but the comment got me wondering about what it is we're really doing when we bless something or someone.

The first thing I think needs to be clear is that blessing isn't the same as consecrating. To consecrate something is to set it aside for sacred use, like the bread and wine at communion, or the water for baptism, or the sanctuary of a church. Anything that's consecrated has to be used for sacred purposes or disposed of reverently (i.e. by eating the bread, drinking the wine/water or pouring it onto the ground, or de-consecrating it if it's a church building that will no longer be used for worship). But we bless stuff all the time that isn't for sacred use. Like many members of my church, I had my house blessed shortly after my husband and I moved in. My cats have been blessed, we bless the food when we say grace, and the priest pronounces a blessing on the congregation at the end of the worship service. None of these make the people, places, or things sacred in the way that consecration does. (So what about consecrating a bishop then? Surely they're only being consecrated in their role as a member of the clergy, not in their entire life – everyone has to deal with the practical as well as the sacred.)

The other thing is that blessing isn't magical. I don't think whether or not your dinner has been blessed is going to affect its nutritional properties. The fact that my house has been blessed doesn't mean it can't burn down, and the blessing at the end of Sunday worship doesn't keep bad stuff from happening to everyone all week. But it is meaningful. Any future homes and pets will also be blessed, and I would miss the blessing on Sunday if we didn't have it as part of the liturgy. (I do, however, tend to be sadly remiss about blessing food. Maybe something to take on during Lent...)

So why is it meaningful? I find myself drawn to the language used to describe the sacraments – the “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” Blessing something isn't a sacrament, but it still has a sort of special significance. In general, it wouldn't be as meaningful for someone to just say, “I hope your cat has a long and happy life,” or even “I hope God gives your cat a long and happy life,” though I can imagine a kind of person who could use just those words and still be pronouncing a blessing. And maybe that can give some hint about where the meaning comes from. This person I'm imagining is someone who would be so connected to God that it would be evident even when they're just doing normal stuff, so that if they're wishing your cat well, of course God is brought into it, because God is brought into everything they do. And different people I've met or known have been like that at different times. But most of us need more intentionality to connect to God in that way, and the specific words and gestures help form that intention. I guess the hope is that we'll all eventually reach a point where that's not needed, where being deeply connected to God is the norm - “the earth as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the seas are full of water” - but I'm a long way from that point, so I need my rites and liturgy and beautiful language.

So blessing seems to have something to do with intentionally recognizing a connection between God and that which is being blessed. Of course the connection exists no matter what, because God is God and is present in all His creation. So that means it doesn't create anything that isn't already there, except within our minds. (Which does not make it real or unimportant – so much of what we do is in our minds!) But it does make me think that if someone was interacting with something that had been blessed, but didn't know it had been blessed, that the blessing wouldn't matter to that person's experience. (Though I will accept that praying for someone can be beneficial to them even if they don't know they're being prayed for, so I'm not sure about this). My thought is that blessing something or being present when it is blessed reminds us that it's part of God's creation, that it's meant to be used/treated in accordance with God's will, and that it's a good gift from God for which joy and gratitude are appropriate responses. And we use the language and gestures of blessing instead of just saying “Hey, remember that this is God's” because in many cases the beauty and specialness speak to us in a way beyond just the words and seem to allow the reality of God's care to penetrate more deeply into our hearts. (That said, there are times, I think, when informal language is appropriate: the informal and occasionally somewhat humorous mealtime prayers among friends and family cement our bonds in other ways that are equally part of our life with God). After the blessing itself is over to remember it or to be told that something is blessed allows us to reconnect with that reality that both this particular thing and all the world belong to God, to His glory and our joy.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


Yesterday I worked with some of the youth of my church to paint their classroom. Our youth program is really great, and one of the great things is that we let each cohort of youth decide how they want to paint their room. The idea is that this allows them to make the space theirs, to have a place that they want to come to because they see themselves in it. This also means that the room now has two black walls with multicolored splatter paint and two lime green walls with handprints and names. It's pretty awesome. I was thrilled at the amount of enthusiasm and participation we had and at the way the kids are already bonding through “war paint” on faces, paint in hair, and paint coating arms up to the elbow.

But the truth was, I was pretty nervous when I left the house yesterday morning. Nervous about not having ladders, nervous about whether the kids would get along, nervous about whether the parents would be satisfied with our supervision and scheduling and everything, nervous about a nagging anxiety in the back of my mind that turned out to be the fact that oh yeah, I don't have a key and the church is locked on Saturday morning.

I've written about this before, but what I've finally learned to do, though I still have to re-derive it every time, is turn my nervousness over to God – tell God flat-out that I want to do a good job but I think I might be in over my head, and I'm going to need Him to take what I have and make it enough. It doesn't make the nervousness completely go away, but it helps. The last time I wrote about this, I then spent most of the day sort of checking in with God every now and then. This time I talked to God and then dove in and was busy all day. I didn't think about God again until we said grace at lunchtime. But He was there: in the graciousness of the parishioner who unlocked the church for us, in the amazing leadership skill of my co-leader, in the joy and enthusiasm and efficiency of the kids, in the effectiveness of the paint remover fluid on the floors and walls, and in the excitement of the youth and appreciation of the parents as they showed off their work. It was a good day.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Love Wins

 I recently read “Love Wins” by Rob Bell. I thought it was pretty good and not really all that heretical. (Though I still don't know if the person who said it was heretical was being serious or not.) The basic idea of the book is the question of heaven and hell and of how they inform and are informed by our ideas about God. I'm going to explore some of the points he brought up, in whatever order I feel like.

The biggest idea is that ultimately, we get what we want. God's forgiveness is such that nothing we've done in our past needs to keep us from entering into joy. If we want to live into God's kingdom, He's not going to stop us (and I would argue quite the opposite). Likewise, if we want to be cruel and prideful and separate from God, He will allow us to make that choice. At least sort of, and this is one of the places where it gets complicated, because the claims are made both that God will let you go off your own way if you want to and that God will try every trick, so to speak, to get you to repent and return to Him. And I believe that both of these are true, and I also see them as possibly in conflict. How is God supposed to keep trying to get you to come back if He's also leaving you alone when you want left alone? The best I can figure is that God is aware of and responds to all our mixed desires, so maybe at the same time, a person's conscious thoughts can be saying “leave me alone” while the silent cry of their heart is “please rescue me,” and surely God is able to know about both of those and to act o that information. This is why I lean very strongly towards universalism. I have trouble imagining that anyone really truly wants to be alone in the dark.

At the same time, I do think that saying we get what we want might be an oversimplification. If what I want is specifically to dominate and exploit other people, I'm not ultimately going to be allowed to do that. I'm perfectly free to be the kind of person that would dominate and exploit other people, given the chance, but in the end, I think the chance to do that kind of thing won't be available. Bell sort of got at that idea too, with a description of how someone like that might be allowed into heaven but not allowed to do any of the cruel things they might want to do, so for them it would be a place of frustration and anger, even though it would be only their own twisted desires making it so (and presumably, help in overcoming those desires would be available through God's grace). That goes along with a sort of “natural consequences” idea I've heard from a friend. We've talked several times about the parable of the sheep and the goats, and they see it as maybe not so much Jesus saying “You go here; you go there,” but more of people sorting themselves out by the kind of people they've become through the way they've chosen to live; that the sheep-y place would seem best to the sheep-y people and the goat-y place would seem best to the goat-y people. And that makes some amount of sense to me, though it still seems to carry a sense of finality I'm not sure about; can a goat notice that this isn't such a great place and try to change things? Does God still hang out in goat-town to show the way home?

Part of my concern is that if it's up to me to make sure I'm not damned, I figure I'm pretty screwed. I don't think I'm a horrible person, but I don't trust myself to make the right choices even when I try to, let alone the times when I just don't try. If my ultimate fate depends on my being good enough, clever enough, compassionate enough, honest enough, or selfless enough, I'm in trouble. Any hope I have comes from believing that God will be there to catch me. This puts me in a strange position of believing both that our decisions don't determine our ultimate fate and that our decisions matter enormously, both to us and to the world. The sense I have is that, even though I think I'll ultimately be saved, I also expect that I'll be called to account for my choices, and I am definitely apprehensive about that. I've made enough mistakes that I don't think it'll be pleasant, but it's more like a dread of having a long walk in freezing rain to get home than of being thrown into a lake of fire. You don't enjoy it while it's going on, and when the wind chills you to the bone you might regret not wearing a warmer jacket, but you know it will end and you just have to endure.