Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving, Gratitude, and Race

I don't know where you are today, or where [if anywhere] you went to church--either last night or this morning--but I can guarantee that you did not hear a better sermon than I did in chapel this morning.  Lauren Muratore was preaching, and she went there:  that's right, instead of preaching a typical feel-good Thanksgiving sermon [which I totally would have done], she talked about race and the racist society in which we live, and in which most of us here at Gettysburg Seminary continue to benefit from in ways we can't even see, and don't even notice. 

She admitted it had been a difficult week to prepare a Thanksgiving sermon, as racism and injustice weighed so heavily on her mind.  And so here is the first thing she owned up to being grateful for, even though she admitted to being somewhat ashamed of it:  

                         "The fact that I happen to have been born with fair skin, 
                          which means that most of the people I meet assume I'm 
                           a good person.  Because I'm a white person.  I'm grateful 
                          for my skin, which allows me to move through the world 
                         with a kind of blindness and grace and ease that I know not 
                         everyone gets to experience.  That some people never experience.  
                         And the absence of that easy way of being in the world--I'll never 
                         know what that's like."

I know what she means.  She went on to list things she is grateful for--"pretty basic treasures"--that many of us take for granted:  being generally safe and free from worry that anyone is out to get us; trusting that the police exist for our protection; and faith that the justice system will serve us well, should be every have need of it.  And then she admitted how all this gratitude made her uncomfortable; and how can you not feel that way, when you know how many, many people around the world can't claim those basic rights?

What I really loved about the sermon, though, was not only that she explicitly talked about race--something few white pastors ever have the courage to do--but how she interpreted the Gospel text of the 10 lepers.  You know the story:  all 10 are healed, but it's only the outsider, the Samaritan, who comes back to Jesus and says thank you.  In Lauren's interpretation, she suggested that this might have been because it is uncomfortable to go back--back to the place where you were scarred, shunned, vulnerable and in need of healing.  How much better to sally forth clear-eyed and clear-skinned away from the dark past, away from where the pain lives.

However, and this is the point, of course:  that place of pain is also where Jesus dwells, where Jesus continues to promise us healing, where Jesus  continues to call us to come and dwell, that we too might not only be healed, but through his grace participate in his healing work.  This is the place gratitude takes us, Lauren said, the place where we are called to "turn around and live into our divine thank radically grateful lives, meeting Jesus in the cruciform places."  And how can we do this, we who are sinful and broken?  "Because of the Spirit that empowers us daily to turn around and go back to the places and people and parts of ourselves who need to hear the good news that healing is still possible."

"It's been a tough week," she said; and around the holidays that's true not only for those in Ferguson, but also for many people who are lost, lonely, and suffering in ways we will never know, and can never see.  And, yet, this promise of healing, this gift of grace and gratitude--that includes with it the compelling invitation to participate in that healing work--continues to be "gospel truth."  Today and every day.  

I can't imagine a better way to celebrate Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Why Secrecy isn't Good for the Death Penalty

I was listening to a story on NPR this morning, talking about a bill in the Ohio House of Representatives that would provide anonymity for pharmacies that compound the drugs used in state-ordered executions, and also physicians who consult on the procedures--read about it here: Death Penalty Reform Bill

This has come about because European companies are refusing to provide drugs for executions, and also because a judge imposed a moratorium on executions in Ohio until 2015 because of problems with the protocol: back in January, it took one man over 25 minutes to die, and apparently, the death was painful.  [And, as you might imagine, some of the conversation around this whole issue has brought out the uglier side of our human nature, with some publicly dismissing the problem of a "botched" execution with the justification that those being executed have inflicted so much suffering on others, why shouldn't they suffer, too?  Because, you know, it's always great when our justice system models itself on criminal behavior....]

So, full disclosure:  I am strongly opposed to the death penalty for all kinds of reasons, including theological ones; but, in this case, I also am opposed to secrecy.  More than once, Jesus talked about bringing things into the light, and coming out of the darkness; and it's a powerful metaphor that can be interpreted in many different ways.  In this context, I see it pointing to the necessity of making hard decisions and having difficult conversations publicly, and holding ourselves accountable to the larger societal context.  Terrible, terrible things can be done in secret, simply because it is easier to justify our actions to ourselves than to others.  There's a great Sherlock Holmes mystery [I forget which one] where Holmes & Watson are riding out on the train away from the city into the countryside, and Watson says something about the beauty of the sparsely-occupied landscape.  Holmes disagrees, saying that when he sees the lonely houses, his mind imagines all the wickedness that can go on unseen and unheard behind the estate walls.  Even in the poorest sections of London, he says, a cry of pain or a call for help will draw a response.  The isolation of "darkness" strips away the protection of a community, leaving victims isolated and helpless.

There is a reason why the death penalty increasingly is being challenged in a variety of states, and why 140 countries have abolished it--no other European country has it.  It is fraught with ethical, practical, legal and, as I said, theological complications; and it's unclear whether it really can stand as a part of the justice system to which we as a nation aspire.  In any case, however, burying these complications under the cloak of darkness is not going to help matters; instead, it will encourage companies, individuals and states to simply continue the status quo, even as we are seeing more and more how broken the system really is.  In almost all cases, secrecy perpetuates injustice, and gives people the illusion that they are above the law, above accountability, and above public responsibility.  It's definitely true here, and I'm hoping those in Ohio realize it.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Universal Salvation

So, all my students know that the topic of salvation is my very favorite theological locus--I find it infinitely fascinating, rich and rewarding, and continue to think it is really the heart of any proclamation of the gospel, and stands at the core of what Christianity is all about.  And, of course, this topic also is really important to me because of the work I do with other religious traditions.  The Christian tradition has a long, sordid history of trumpeting extra ecclesia [or extra Christumnulla salus--outside the church [or Christ], no salvation--and this belief has justified abominable treatment of indigenous peoples around the world, to say nothing of Jews and Muslims.  Suffice it to say that, as far as interreligious dialogue is concerned, the doctrine of salvation historically has been a divisive point of contention, rather than a celebratory point of convergence.

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, however [beginning most dramatically with Vatican II, but certainly even before], there has been lots of interesting, constructive work done in this area:  that is, thinking about the doctrine of salvation specifically with other religious believers in mind--not people who have no faith, but people who are satisfied and thriving in a religious tradition other than Christianity.  [In this context, I can't help but mention one of my very favorite texts in this regard, Hans Urs von Balthasar's Dare We Hope that All Men (read:  people) Be Saved?]  In the class I am teaching this fall, which is basically an interreligious examination of salvation, we are reading a really great book by Gerald O'Collins, SJ, titled Jesus Our Redeemer:  A Christian Approach to Salvation.  The chapter that we will be discussing on Wednesday looks specifically at "The Salvation of Non-Christians."

It's a great chapter, and I want to share one part of it in particular.  He talks extensively about the New Testament witness to Jesus, and at one point, he emphasizes that the clear belief in Scripture is that outside Christ there is no salvation; however, at the same time, he says that the NT also is clear that "there is no outside Christ.  We are all part of his saving story."  Notice how that changes things.  O'Collins goes on to list five key "considerations" that underscore and emphasize this logic:

1.  The work of the Holy Spirit:  "...the Spirit of Christ operates beyond the confines of baptized believers to bring others to Christ.  The universal relevance and impact of the Spirit enacts the universal relevance of Christ's redemptive work....There is no zone 'outside Christ', since there is no zone 'outside' grace and the Holy Spirit."

2.  Jesus' proclamation of the coming kingdom of God:  "There was a universal dimension to this preaching...The first Christians knew how his resurrection from the dead authenticated his claims, and, in particular, the claim to being in person the agent of the divine kingdom that is and will be all-inclusive, or--in other words--to being the agent of universal salvation."

3.  The solidarity of Jesus with all human beings in the incarnation:  "He entered history and became, in a sense, every man and every woman."

4.  Christ as the agent of creation:  Scripture confesses Christ as "the universal and exclusive agent of creation.  This belief underpins a conclusion about Christ's universal role for salvation.  Wherever the created world and its inner and outer history mediate God's grace, those who receive this saving grace are in fact receiving it through Christ."

5.  Christ as divine Word:  "As divine, Christ is universally present, actively influencing the mediation of redemption to all.  Those who accept his divinity have no choice but to acknowledge also his universal role for salvation."

Now, to those who know, these clearly are "inclusivist" arguments--arguments that everyone will be saved, but that Christ is the agent of salvation for all, including those who do not know him or believe in him.  Obviously, this is a satisfying argument to many Christians:  I get that.  However, it has its own problems, too, not least the fact that it drags everyone kicking and screaming into the kingdom whether they want to be there or not, completely relativizing and dismissing all other religious practices/beliefs in the process.  So, I'm not fully endorsing it.  

However, what I like about O'Collins reasoning here is that it provides a way for Christians to think openly and more creatively about the relationship between Jesus Christ and other religious traditions, and offers a way out of the dead-end that says only Christians are redeemed and loved, and everyone else is out.  No one knows for sure how it's all going to turn out for us--except I feel sure that some surprises await--but in the meantime, I'm all for fresh eyes and fresh thoughts about this issue. I think the more we learn about God's saving work in the world, the more amazing and wonderful it all is.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Remembering the Good

I just landed in Halifax tonight for a public lecture on Monday, and I wanted to write a quick blog post before I go to bed. One of the things I love about flying is that I get to catch up on all my reading. So, for example, today I read one Christian Century , four New Yorkers, and one Entertainment Weekly.  Then, when I was done with those, I started the next Louise Penny mystery--I'm on A Trick of the Light.

I love her books: I love the main character, Inspector Gamache; I love the storytelling; I love the characters; and I love the writing.  And almost always, there is some little snippet of a conversation, some little quote or comment that strikes me as profound and very meaningful.  That's what I want to share today.

So, when the book opens, Clara Morrow's a one-woman show at an art gallery in Montreal has opened. She's put her whole heart and her whole self out there, and so she's bit of a wreck about it all--wondering what the critics are going to think. So the next morning, she buys a bunch of newspapers, takes a deep breath and reads the reviews.  Almost all of them are glowing, and they say wonderful things about her work; but, of course, there is one negative review, and, like all of us, this is the one she chooses to focus on, and it is those words that she remembers.

A brief conversation with her neighbor Ruth, a famous poet, helps her to see what she has done. Ruth asks her what the critics said, and Clara finds she can't remember any of the lines in the good reviews, but she can quote the bad one by heart.  Ruth stands up and recites one of the best sentences in one of Clara's reviews, and then says to her, "Don't forget, Clara."

I was so struck by that, because aren't we all susceptible to that kind of selective memory?  I know I am:  I remember the worst student evaluations, not the best; I remember the unkind criticisms, rather than the compliments; and I magnify every mistake and misstep.  And when I think of all the people I love in ministry, I know how many pastors do this, too, and how painful it can be.

If you know the characters, you know that one of the points of this exchange is that Ruth is an embittered old woman, whose heart and face have been shaped by the pain of critique and insult. When we engage in this kind of selective memory, it forms who we are and the person we become:  we live into other peoples' construction of our identity, rather than becoming our own person.  And, it gives the haters way too much power over us in the meantime!

There are two sides to this, of course; sometimes I'm on the other side of the critique, too.  We're not always the people we should be to each other--we wound each other accidentally & intentionally--and even when we're sorry, we can't take back what we've said.  So, I took that little word to heart, to remind myself to be kinder to others, and kinder to myself, too--I want love, openness, and joy to triumph, not cruelty, disappointment and doubt.  And I want that not only for myself, but for others, too.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

More with Us than against Us

This may be my shortest blog post ever, but I wanted to share a little gem of a story with you, which came from chapel yesterday.  Mark Oldenburg, our dean of the chapel and worship [and sometimes preaching] professor, was our preacher for our Wednesday Eucharist service.  I've mentioned him before in my blog because he is simply one of the finest preachers I've ever heard, hands down.  Anyway, in the course of his sermon, he referenced a biblical story I had totally forgotten even existed [And here let me just own up to the fact that I realize I should be way more embarrassed about how much I still don’t know about the Bible, but who has the time?!].  The story is from 2 Kings 6, and here's the situation:  the king of Aram has surrounded the city of Dothan with an army by night, and he is preparing to attack and kill Elisha in the morning.  Verses 15-17 then read:

"When an attendant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city.  His servant said, 'Alas, master!  What shall we do?'  [Elisha] replied, 'Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.'  Then Elisa prayed:  'O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see.'  So the LORD opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha."

The point was, of course, that God is always with us, in ways we don’t always see; and even when we feel surrounded and overwhelmed, God is there at work in our midst.

I was greatly encouraged by that word, and that promise.  Sometimes I feel very alone--surrounded, outnumbered and out of options.  And this image of God's presence--metaphorically expressed in a fiery army of blazing light--and the sure knowledge that God is always there, standing with and for me, with an army of strength and love, gives me such good courage and hope. 

I imagine some of you feel like that sometimes, too, so I wanted to share this story with you—and I hope it encourages you also.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Four Questions to ask the Dying

I'm a huge fan of Atul Gawande.  I first discovered him in The New Yorker, where he is a regular contributor, and then I read his books:  Complications, Better, and The Checklist Manifesto.  [I just saw he has a new one out, too:  Being Mortal:  Medicine and What Happens in the End--I just put that in my Amazon cart!].  He's a doctor and a professor--and a very accomplished one--but he also is a great writer, and he writes very compellingly about the place where the capabilities and possibilities of the medical profession and our expectations about that profession meet and break down.  He is painfully honest about what medicine and doctors can and can't do, and how hard it is for people to face those limitations--as well as their own.

I read this article by Gawande in The New York Times the other day, and I wanted to share it: The Best Possible Day.  In this piece, he talks about dying--how hard it is to discuss, how hard it is for the medical profession to face and accept, and how we aren't having the kinds of conversations about death and dying we need to be having:  as families, as a society, and as health care professionals.

In the course of the article, Gawande suggests four questions that can unlock "transformative possibilities" for both the patient and his/her family.  They are as follows:

(1) What is their understanding of their health or condition? (2) What are their goals if their health worsens? (3) What are their fears? and (4) What are the trade-offs they are willing to make and not willing to make?

He notes that asking these questions--and taking seriously the answers--enables the person to exercise agency and give voice to what matters most to her, and helps those who love her best care for and support her; and, in the end, give her as many of "the best possible days" as she is able to have.

I've been thinking about death more than I usually do because of the class I'm teaching, which is about salvation, but very broadly understood:  I see it as an arc that includes life, life after life, and also death:  what I mean is that I think death is a part of Christian salvation, not a break in the salvation experience--not an interruption to it.  So, as Christians, I would argue that we're called to think much more deeply and explicitly about what dying means for us, how we are called to die, and how we are called to walk with the dying and their families.  I'm particularly troubled by the "fight" metaphor that seems to characterize so much of the medical experience with serious illness: you have to "fight" it and not "surrender" or "give up;" you don't want to let it "win."  I think that mentality creates a lose/lose situation that minimalizes options and takes away individual freedom and creative choices that fall outside the "fight or give up" paradigm.

Death is a part of what it means to live, and all life is predicated on death in one way or another.  We can't avoid it, and while I'm not saying we have to embrace it, I do think we can accept it with more grace, love and hope than we typically do.  We sing of "sister death" in St. Francis' "Canticle of the Sun:"  what would it mean to take that metaphor more seriously?

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Receiving Gifts from Sinful People--The Case of John Howard Yoder

There is a small avalanche of magazines that comes into our home every month:  The New Yorker, InStyle, Smithsonian, Christian Century, The Week, Vanity Fair--and that's not even the whole list!  So, sometimes, as you might imagine, I get behind--way behind, which explains why it is only this week that I got around to reading The Christian Century from August 20th.  The cover story of that issue was about John Howard Yoder--and more specifically, the egregious sexual misconduct in which he engaged over decades.  [You can find a longer version of the authors' article here:  Scandalizing John Howard Yoder]

Most theologians have heard of this story by now--it isn't new--but the Mennonite Church is still dealing both with the accusations, and, even more importantly with the response--or should I say lack of response--the various individuals and institutions made to them.  Suffice it to say that, overall, it was tepid at best.  The article begins with this paragraph:  "Thirty years after John Howard Yoder was first accused of sexual misconduct and almost two decades after his death in 1997, the story of his abusive behavior remains painfully unresolved in the Mennonite communities in which he was for a decade regarded as the foremost theologian and chief representative of Anabaptist thought."

The issue raised in the article is not merely Yoder's reprehensible conduct--though that clearly comes through, but rather to wrestle with how we theologians who come after him, particularly those who seek to walk in his footsteps, can continue to use his theology, when he himself so clearly and systematically violated the stance for which he is best known--that is, Christian pacifism.  Listen to his own statement about violence [the authors quote him repeatedly in the course of the article, and quite damningly, too]:  "As soon as either verbal abuse or bodily coercion moves beyond that border line of loving enhancement of the dignity of person, we are being violent..."  They go on to note Yoder's own emphasis that in Latin "the verb 'to violate' is the same as the verb 'to rape':  it refers to the purity or integrity or self-determination of a woman [emphasis added by the authors]."  By Yoder's own theological standards, he violated in a spectacular way his own cherished tenets.

While Yoder is a very public example of the fallibility of human nature in general--and perhaps theologians in particular--he is not alone.  I have written here before about the challenges all Lutherans must face as they wrestle with Martin Luther's own terrible Anti-Jewish writings; and the theologies of both Paul Tillich and Martin Luther King Jr. have been compromised by their own sexual misconduct.  None of us are saints, and sadly, a call to professional ministry--whether in the church or in the academy--certainly doesn't change that.

Now, let me be clear that there is no question, of course, that individuals engaged in sexual misconduct--or misconduct of any kind--must be prepared to answer for, and accept appropriate discipline for, those violations.  Part of what makes the problem of the abusive Catholic priests so troubling is the apparent unwillingness of everyone involved to step up and take responsibility--and even more, the active attempts to cover and shield their crimes.  There is no excuse for that, ever.  However, the question still remains, what to do with the theology.  In Yoder's case, the man may be deeply flawed, but his theology is, in places, brilliant, and still offers a much-needed prophetic word today.  What are we to do?  

Here is where the authors are so helpful, as they remind us that, "It is undoubtedly difficult to know how to receive gifts from sinful people.  But ever since the church settled the Donatist controversy in the early fifth century, the church has agreed that such gifts can and should be received."  And this is not because of anything inherent in the person him or herself, but rather because of God's majesty, mercy, and astounding ability to bring life out of death, and light out of darkness.  They remind us that "God providentially uses the fallen for good"--and, like with Joseph, even when the intention is evil, God can bring good out of our very worst actions.  The authors say strongly that "Yoder's theology became a foothold for the devil;" and yet, "Against his best efforts, John Howard Yoder cannot escape God."  Yoder's work will endure not because of his own personal greatness, but because of the greatness of God. 

So, I pray, for us, too.  I would not want the validity or strength of anything I write, do or say to rest solely on my own character:  I'm Lutheran after all, and we know as well as anyone that no individual can bear that weight on her own.  Instead, I trust always in God's everlasting kindness to work through me in ways I could never envision or imagine, and bring good out of my worst moments.  I am a sinner, true, and can never be otherwise, but I hope that the gifts I offer still can be received in grace and used for good.  We're all counting on that, I think.