Monday, April 27, 2009

From the Lectionary: The Readings for Sunday, May 3

Acts 4:5-12

5The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, 6with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. 7When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, "By what power or by what name did you do this?" 8Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, "Rulers of the people and elders, 9if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, 10let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. 11This Jesus is 'the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.' 12There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved."

Psalm 23:1-6

1The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.

2He makes me lie down in green pastures;

he leads me beside still waters;

3he restores my soul.

He leads me in right paths

for his name's sake.

4Even though I walk through the darkest valley,

I fear no evil;

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff-

they comfort me.

5You prepare a table before me

in the presence of my enemies;

you anoint my head with oil;

my cup overflows.

6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me

all the days of my life,

and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD

my whole life long.

1 John 3:16-24

16We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us-and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

18Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.

23And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

John 10:11-18

11"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away-and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father."

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Editorial: Bearing Witness

Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, "You are not at peace." They were startled and terrified, as though they were all ghosts. He said to them, "Do you not even know why you are frightened, why doubts arise in your hearts? Look at your hands and your feet; see that you yourselves are broken. Touch your wounds and see; for ghosts do not have flesh and bones as you do." And when he had said this, he showed them their hands and their feet. While they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?" He gave them pieces of broiled fish, and they took it and ate it in his presence.

Then he said to them, "Remember my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you-that you would suffer for my sake, and that my kingdom is not of this world. But you do not need my name to suffer. The world will hurt you because it is not of my kingdom, and I am going away from you. But take heart! For I have overcome the world, and in the wounds of your sides and in your hands and feet you bear witness to my coming and my going. And verily I tell you that on the last day the testimony you bear in blood will be washed away. Repent, and you will be forgiven. The kingdom of this world will be condemned by your blood, and you will be raised up as the stones and pillars of the kingdom that is to come."

It didn't go that way, of course. But I'd like to think it could have. I'd like to think that we might all share in the recognition that absence and presence, comings and goings, mark a relationship as surely as the nature of the people in it. And that's what we do, right? We throw coming-home parties and we give the people we care about a proper sendoff, because it matters where they are and we aren't the same for their leaving or their return.

And I would certainly like to think that all the ridiculous sufferings of this world, all the cruel absurdities that chance and will and powers and principalities unjustly inflict upon us are the things that condemn it, just as much as our own idolatries and betrayals condemn us personally. I'd like to think that God's kingdom acts by vastly different rules, and that every time one of us is arbitrarily harmed the tally grows against the anti-kingdom of this world because our sufferings are not meaningless, but that by living through them we are gathering an account of what a world without God is like.

And obviously, I do believe these things. But I doubt that we are very good at thinking through and acting on their implications. The absence of God doesn't get much play in churchy circles. Sad Saturday barely makes it unto the back of most bulletins, let alone very many minds. And if you ask people what Tenabrae is, you might hear something about it maybe being a band. (I'll admit it was a new service for me, and an instant favorite).

I've said a few times, for comic effect, that I made a horrible atheist because I kept going to church and still tried to pray. But that was precisely the right thing to do, both during college and the longer stint after graduation. One of the things that our culture has so massively wrong is that non-believers leave the church. It's the faithful who should go out into the world! And it's the devastated who should flock to congregations as places of healing, comfort and shared witness to what happens when God isn't there anymore, because God's absence matters in the way that a lovers' does.

But you see how backwards that all sounds. We celebrate God's presence constantly, and the last thing we are prone to do when we lose faith and hope is to talk to people in the pews about it. At least, that's the last thing I'm prone to do, and I assume I can't be alone in this regard. But it shouldn't be a confession! It should be a conversation that doesn't surprise anyone. We should always be singing the Psalms. Because the world does hurt, and it hurts beyond our capacity to bear it. That's what suffering means. But it should never mean that we are alone, and it should certainly never mean that no one has time to hear our witness, our testimony, to see and touch the wounds in each other's sides.

"I come not for those who are well, but for the sick." That's one statement of Christ's that I won't invert. How often we miss that. How often we sit in the pews and face the altar, as though Jesus Christ himself might not walk in the door at any second. As though the face of Christ incarnate were not written into solemn passersby. And how often we sing songs of light and providence, as though our silent pains and pangs, as though all our doubts and debts and darknesses were not hymns of unspoken yearning for the God most high.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Notice: The Future is Already Here

Well, I've been looking for a theme for this semester, and along with the editorials, a project to pad out this space. And since I just spent the last two hours pulling books from the library from noted futurists for an outside project, it would seem I have it here.

This has always been a sore spot between me and Christianity, not that it insists on traditional answers to social and religious issues, which is fine, but that it completely fails to ask non-traditional questions at all, even as society moves in markedly different directions. It then spends the next fifty years playing catch up before it can even legitimately ask what happened.

What, for example, is the Christian stand on privacy? My legal friends say that this might be the next fifty years of constitutional debate, but what does Christ or the spirit of Christ compel us to think about these issues? How are we as Christians to frame them? What about issues of copyright protection and intellectual ownership? Hmmm? Ask these questions in religious circles and you get most often crickets chirping your answer, or simply a pat admonition to follow the laws of the land - which, right or not, is not comprehensive advice, nor is it strictly biblical.

There was a time when Christianity was a forward-looking religion, when the expectation of the age of Christ to come surpassed any current issues; indeed, it seemed to relegate the first Christians to waiting in a puddle and ignoring the polis entirely. I wouldn't advocate that we return to this, obviously - but I would say that the opposite, of debating for the next hundred years issues that the broader culture has by and large moved on from, is not the cure that Christ would look for.

Rather, I would urge that Christ would have us prepare for His return and shape the future in His image by healing the world we actually live in, rather than the subculture that we imagine that we inhabit or once lived in as citizens of a long-lost America. There are issues far larger than sexuality, pop-culture and church polity that impact millions upon millions of people everyday. Climate change is one of them, but threatens to become the only voice we hear. But what about peak water? Soil erosion? The invasive presence of technology in our lives? Our increasingly fraught and complicated relationship to health and biology, the very gifts God gave us? Where is the well-considered voice of reason and Christian tradition on these topics, and many others?

You won't find it here. But you will find me, ever curious, thinking and asking further questions as I engage some of the most prescient thinkers of our time - and, of course, the time to come. Recently, our Vicar has been taking us through something of an idea about what the Emegent Church might look like. This is fine, but there are larger questions to consider and broader questions that simply living in this modern world forces each and every thinking, caring Christian to ask and answer, no matter how they feel about the current state of this church or any other.

I hope you'll join me, or at least follow along at home.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Love Poem: Blind as a Bat

Blind as a Bat

Divine Oneness
is like being in sunshine.

So why be afraid
of the bat-natured ones?

If they're the cause of your worry,
come out of hiding -

There's no need to run
from those who can't see.

Sahabi Astarabadi

Love Poem: Without Hindrance

Without Hindrance

When the morning of friendship with God begins
to dawn,
the soul becomes distant from the entire world.

You then reach a place in which each breath of the
without the eye's hindrance,
can see the Friend.

-Sayf al-Din Bakharzi

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Notice: the Readings for Sunday, April 26

Let's think about them. My own comments to follow.

Acts 3:12-19

When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, "You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.

"And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out,"

Psalm 4:1-8

Answer me when I call, O God of my right!

You gave me room when I was in distress.

Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer.

How long, you people, shall my honor suffer shame?

How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies?


But know that the Lord has set apart the faithful for himself;

the Lord hears when I call to him.

When you are disturbed, do not sin;

ponder it on your beds, and be silent.


Offer right sacrifices,

and put your trust in the Lord.

There are many who say, "O that we might see some good!

Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord!"

You have put gladness in my heart

more than when their grain and wine abound.

I will both lie down and sleep in peace;

for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.

1 John 3:1-7

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.

Luke 24:36b-48

Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, "Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have." And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?" They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you-that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things."

Monday, April 13, 2009

Is There a Devil?

Ah, yes, well. This is certainly a difficult question. And, for me, one a bit different than believing in God. I believe in God because I've experienced God. I've encountered something for which God is the only word I have. I have never met the devil, Lucifer, or Satan. So, all my thinking must be second-hand and, well, less certain. If I believe in the devil, it is not the same as believing in God, which is more like believing in you, because I've met you. And one might reasonably make the claim that there is no evil on earth that humans cannot ultimately cause. There is another word for Satan, and he is us, all our darker nature. All the rest is metaphor.

However, this has not been an acceptable explanation for most people throughout most of history. Everyone has an adversary, which is Satan's biblical role. It is not a stable or central identity. In Scripture, Satan evolves from a snake in the garden to prosecuting attorney to a mysterious tempter to an opposing power and the ultimate beastly evil at the end of time. Most of the things people have heard about Satan, such as the rebellion in heaven and Satan's reign in hell (rather than wandering the earth) are additions of Christian and other traditions, and are not biblical teaching, though we would note that most all orthodox Christianity has indeed believed in the existence of the devil, whatever the details.

But the point is that the scriptures, and especially the Gospels, strongly posit a vision of two kingdoms: the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world, with the latter being given over to the adversary. The powers and principalities of this world are fallen, corrupt, and not ultimately to be trusted for human welfare and salvation; they are the opposition. They are the instruments and dominion of the enemy. Jesus didn't want you to go kill Caesar, but he did want you to know that Caesar might be playing for the other team. So, Jesus opposed the devil. Christ clearly saw a spiritual dimension of existence to which we moderns are not accustomed, and treated elements of it as cursed and abhorrent parts of the anti-kingdom, the one opposed to God -it's not entirely implausible that the anti-kingdom would have a king, who tempted Jesus in the wilderness.

So, with my own experience not being applicable, based on tradition and scripture, especially in the witness of Christ, I would say that yes, the devil does exist. The wandering adversary has effects in this world, though I cannot describe the devil in any detail and doubt that anyone can, and cannot say to what degree the devil could make anyone do anything. The other point that scripture makes that doesn't, in my opinion, get enough mention, is how weak the devil's position actually is in this world. It's all provisional, it's all at the pleasure of God and can be taken away at any time. Demons ask Christ for permission to do what they do, and similar powers seem entirely under the authority of the first apostles, whose mandate scripture does nothing to diminish. Now, this puts God and God's servants in an interesting relation to evil and its agents, but that's a whole other theological problem, and quite beyond my ken.

The larger point, I think, is that the devil is ultimately weak and seems to serve a similar function to Israel's enemies in the Old Testament: God permits the devil to have his say for a while so that our chastening and salvation can occur through the action of our faith. Satan does not persist because of Satan's great powers, but because of God's permission and evil's slippery and multiform nature. We're not going up against the Dark Lord Sauron here. It's more like we're confronting Grima Wormtongue of Tolkein fame, or even Gollum. So it's not, I think, that the devil made you do it, so much as that God allowed Satan to do something to us all for a little while, even as our choices remain our own.

There is by exceedingly widespread testimony a part of the universe far larger than ourselves that seems to be arrayed against, or at best indifferent to, human flourishing - be it individual or corporate. The Greeks called it Fate, moderns call it chance or randomness. But for people who take seriously the spiritual dimension of our lives, Satan might actually be a more accurate description, because that seems to be his role: the opponent, the snake in the garden, the worm in the apple, the bump in the night that reminds us that not everyone's on our side, that death is at our door, that our parents will not always be able to protect us - that we are frail and ultimately alone, that our lives are fragile, that nothing in this world will deliver us, and that we ultimately depend on God and God alone for our existence and salvation. That's the devil, doing the devil's work.

Notice: Spring Semester is Here!

Since my academic calendar clearly has no relation to the Roman one, and is instead based entirely on the waxing and waning of my interest, I'm pleased to announce the begging of Curious Monk's first spring semester in Religious Studies at the University of You Made It Up!, the only academic institution devoted exclusively to individual whims. Scheduled are a series of editorials based on the common lectionary, some more love poems, and a project to be named later, though it looks like I'm done with the Qur'an. Well, everyone, have at it! We'll start you off with the Prince of Darkness.