Wednesday, August 29, 2007

In Silence, Shouting for Joy

I have just returned from a personal, completely silent retreat of three days’ duration at New Camaldoli Hermitage. New Camaldoli is a Benedictine monastery of 800 acres set on a hillside a mile or so above ocean cliffs on the central coast of California, placed among oak, eucalyptus, various spreading evergreen trees, and lots of chaparral. Though the hillside was open to sunlight, the sea below was blanketed in fog like batting throughout the day.

I have gone to the Hermitage every year or two for a decade or more, and had been there less frequently than that since 1975. I picked the dates of this retreat back in February when I made my reservation because of a total eclipse of the moon that was to take place on August 28. I only found out a few days before my departure that the eclipse would occur between 2:00 and 4:00 a.m.! Still, I woke up for it.

The sound of cicadas was everywhere. The full moon was a bit south of directly overhead. The view could not have been better. A little after 2:00 a.m. the disk of the earthshadow had bitten a noticeable chunk out of the moon. An hour later, the moon was fully engulfed by the shadow and had become the color of blotchy, drying blood. It was definitely worth getting up in the wee hours of the morning to see, but there was an added blessing I hadn’t anticipated.

I could see the Milky Way—the great spangle of stars that spreads across the night sky as if it had been sprayed. Unfortunately there were bright night-lights in the proximity of the retreatants’ rooms, but I only had to walk fifty yards or so to get away from them. I lay on my back on the top of a low brick retaining wall and looked up. The view of the stars was dazzling. There were so many it was even hard to identify common constellations.

Is this what Abraham saw? I wondered. “The Lord took Abram outside and said, ‘Look up at the sky and count the stars if you can. Just so shall your descendants be’” (Genesis 15:5). Abraham probably saw even more stars than I was seeing, for he had no artificial lighting of any kind to wash out the light of the stars.

As I stared upward, I was unexpectedly brought back fifty years or more when I could see the Milky Way from the back yard of my home in Northridge, a little town in the San Fernando Valley twenty miles northwest of Los Angeles. For decades now light pollution has been so strong there that one can see few stars at all, much less the Milky Way. I’ve heard reports that when there is a power failure in Los Angeles, frightened people call up the police station to ask what all the dots of light are in the sky. How incredibly sad!

I remembered that it was looking up at the night sky in the early 1950s when I was a small child that first piqued my sense of wonder and inspired a love of astronomy. From that, through many stages, came my love of orthodox Christian theology, which is itself throbbing love poetry for God. My sense of wonder has never been slaked—rather, it grew into worship.

It was well worth waking up at 2:00 a.m. Although, being on retreat in a hermitage, I was in silence, I was also in a place where “The morning stars sang in chorus and all the sons of God shouted for joy!” (Job 38:7)

Friday, August 24, 2007

“So Could You Kill Somebody?”

Once not long ago I had an appointment with somebody in my office; the only time I could see him was an hour before the martial arts class, so I was dressed in my karate uniform. When he found out how long I had been training and teaching others and what my rank was, he asked, “So could you kill somebody?”

I answered, “Just about anyone can kill somebody. It is better to be in a state where aggression of any kind cannot overcome you—when you can endure and survive an attack without causing harm in return, and even work toward healing your attacker.”

When I was growing up, advertisements for martial arts classes often showed a picture of a little guy at the beach getting sand kicked in his face by some pugnacious lummox. The headline for the ad read something like, “TIRED OF GETTING PUSHED AROUND?” The ad promised that those who trained at so-and-so school would quickly be able to respond to violence with even stronger violence.

Isn’t it usually the case that people who use violence are weak in some way? Emotionally, spiritually, relationally, etc.? More often, it is the strong who can endure injustice and even violence and come through okay. When Jesus was arrested, a large group of armed soldiers came to apprehend one man in the presence of eleven men who were fishermen and other non-soldierly types. Yet they were afraid, and came with swords, cudgels, and torches to cover their fear. When Peter swung his sword (impetuous as always but also pretty courageous), Jesus rebuked him and said, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53)

Sometimes I think about what it would have been like to see that happen! I don’t know how many a legion is, but it’s got to be a lot. It would have been really cool to see twelve of them appearing to drive off the arresting party. Of course, that would have meant no crucifixion and therefore no redemption, and that would have been bad.

Sometimes letting oneself be assailed, treated unjustly, and the like is a necessary part of ministering, teaching, and loving. It is within the will of God. Many times one or few stood alone for the sake of fidelity to God: Elijah against the 850 prophets on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18), Paul bearing witness to Jesus before Felix and Agrippa in Caesarea (Acts 23-26), Athanasius “against the world” holding forth for orthodoxy against powerful and popular but erroneous belief, Hilary likewise boldly standing up for orthodoxy alone in a council of waverers and opponents, Francis and Catherine of Siena walking away from their earthly-minded families for the sake of utter dedication to Jesus, Teresa of Avila maintaining the course for a return to basic Christian living in the face of opposition from her comfortable superiors. There are many, many others.

Numbers and popularity apparently mean very little to God. Only rarely, if ever, has he depended on numbers to win a battle. Usually, it’s the contrary. We are called simply to believe in him, trust in him, hold fast, and when called to do so uphold the truth. This is strength, the only strength that matters and is reliable.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Reflections on the Anglican Realignment

There seems to be little question that the Anglican Communion is going through an unprecedented major realignment at this time. Most leaders and commentators across the spectrum of conviction agree that this is the case. Indeed, the realignment has been in process for years already. Some reflect and publish in a considered and Biblical manner, and make their case logically and humbly. Others do so with varying degrees of arrogance, stridency, fear, discouragement, lack of charity, ignorance, etc. What the realignment will look like when it has been achieved is a matter of guesswork, and the settlement will probably take years to emerge.

Blessed Sacrament’s Discernment Committee, which I called together last January (see this post), has been doing careful, prayerful, and effective work to look at the trends, issues, and possibilities. The Committee has a huge charge, though it may be simply stated: make a recommendation to the Vestry about what is best for Blessed Sacrament in this time of realignment.

The Discernment Committee—and two of our Lenten programs as well—began by learning about the Anglican Communion, which consists of 38 independent provinces throughout the world, with about 75 or 80 million Anglicans. We have learned that the Communion overall is healthy and robust. The strength of the Anglican Communion is in the “Third World”, mostly in Africa, if one may measure by vibrancy of faith in the pew, number of converts, and strength of commitment to commonly-understood Biblical orthodoxy. Almost 25% of the Anglican Communion is found in Nigeria alone. African Anglicanism is strongly evangelical rather than Anglo-Catholic in preference. Western Anglicanism appears to be in decline. Membership and attendance in the Episcopal Church, for example, have declined a little bit each year for a long time.

The Anglican Communion came into existence almost at random, with its greatest period of expansion in the latter half of the nineteenth century with the spread of the British Empire. There was no intention at that time to “centralize” the Anglican Communion or come up with a way to make decisions on a worldwide basis. There was no need to do so. Anglicans generally have considered the independence of the provinces and a decentralized form of governing to be a strength. It has often been said that the Archbishop of Canterbury is a “first among equals” and has no juridical authority outside his own diocese.

For the past generation or more, however, a few provinces in Anglicanism have made unilateral decisions that have had a serious negative effect on the rest of the Anglican Communion. These decisions, mostly made by the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, and how other parts of the Anglican world responded to these decisions, have brought the Anglican Communion to a crisis. It is clear that the Anglican world has come to a point where it cannot and will not function as it used to. Whatever it comes to look like, the future Anglican Communion will be different from what it has been.

At the risk of putting it too simply, it seems to me that there are now two views about the way Anglicans should do business. One view says that in the modern world, Anglicans need to realize that they are in fact a world community addressing world issues, and that the provinces are interdependent—not “should be interdependent”, but already “are”. Major issues that confront any given province will likely affect all the other provinces. Therefore a way must be found to define Anglicanism as a world community with a decision-making process at the world level. That means that we must “centralize” the way we make decisions in areas that affect the whole Anglican world.

The other view asserts that that is not the way Anglicans have ever made decisions, and actually goes against one of the strengths and boasts of Anglicanism: a decentralized form of government with provincial independence. This claim is certainly accurate—historically, at least. The question is whether this way of doing business meets our current needs. In my opinion, the old way is clearly inadequate. Even apart from the issues that have created the crisis, to try to maintain the old way of doing things is backward thinking—basically merely saying, “But we’ve never done it that way before.” It is doing business this way that has brought the Anglican Communion to its current crisis. It doesn’t work any more. It hasn’t worked for more than thirty years. (I find it more than curious that most of those who claim to be “pushing the envelope forward” in the Anglican world are the “backward thinkers” in the matter of Anglican decision-making!)

The first view, proposed by the great majority of Anglican leaders, is indeed a way new to Anglicanism. This does not make it automatically wrong. In my opinion, it is, in fact, wise, realistic, and essential. The realignment is moving in the direction of this view—creating a worldwide Anglican identity with mutual accountability and effectively recognizing that Anglicanism has become a world family and is no longer a loose confederation.

There are currently four Instruments of Unity in Anglicanism that define us as a world family: the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury who is the symbol of unity and has authority to decide who is an Anglican; the Lambeth Conference of all Anglican bishops, which began in 1867 and meets every ten years to take counsel; the Anglican Consultative Council, a deliberative body that includes clergy and lay people from around the world; and the Council of Primates, or bishops who are leaders of the 38 Anglican provinces. The latter two only came into existence in the 1970s.

Currently, there is proposed to the 38 provinces an “Anglican Covenant” by which the various provinces are asked to agree together to be a worldwide family with mutual accountability and, when necessary, make binding decisions together. It is a situation similar to the time after the original thirteen American colonies had become independent from England and then had to decide whether to form a federal government or not. It is a rare situation in world history, and people do not easily or gladly cede authority to a larger body. Until now there has been no need in Anglicanism to do so, but it seems to me to be a crying need today.

What will the Episcopal Church do in the present time? What will the rest of the Anglican world do once the Episcopal Church makes its decision? What will Blessed Sacrament do as these decisions unfold? Ah—these are the questions, aren’t they? As always, they are only different forms of the One Great Question of all: how do we best serve Jesus?

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Sin, Forgiveness, and Love: Part II

Read Part I of this post here.

Writing this post has been far more demanding and time-consuming than I anticipated, for each line carries some heavy complexities. But then, this is only a blogpost, not a treatise, curriculum, or book. So here goes:

Restore me to you
Christians believe that we are forgiven sinners. When we sin and are sorry for it, we believe that God forgives us. “We have complete confidence” and are “sincere of heart and filled with faith, our hearts sprinkled and free from any trace of bad conscience” (Hebrews 10:19, 22). Yet I have found that although many believers acknowledge that this is true, they rarely feel it. We are often told, even by experienced spiritual directors, that feelings are comforting but not strictly necessary, and that assenting to the belief is most important.

This is true, but I rather think that consistent failure to feel what we believe is indicative of something that needs attention. Doesn’t the assurance of being truly loved fill us with joy? If it didn’t, wouldn’t that be a sign that we didn’t really believe or trust that the love was genuine? Believers are to be confident that we are loved and worthwhile people in spite of our sin.

Our confidence to relate to others, especially those against whom we have sinned and to whom we owe a moral debt, can only come from being restored to God who strengthens us and gives us grace to seek reconciliation with others. Without that, the best we can do is stumble through with very mixed results. Yet we are also taught by Jesus himself to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”—that is, our understanding of and ability to accept forgiveness from God is linked to our experience of forgiveness at the human level.

Grant reconciliation with any whom I have offended
This is by far the most difficult, challenging, and risky part of the entire process of sin, forgiveness, and love. Although reconciling with others is a command given by Jesus in Matthew 18:15ff, I think that it is rarely followed. Whenever a serious sin has done considerable damage in a relationship, it is complex and costly to try to effect reconciliation, for doing so is completely dependent upon others who are sinners themselves.

Those who ask forgiveness put themselves into the power of others, and Jesus knows well that that power will not always be wielded in mercy and love, but sometimes in vengeance—which is another sin in the sad cycle of human relationships. Since no sin is solitary, being hurt by someone else’s sin stirs up other sins that have caused wounds. (For more on this subject see the post called With His Stripes We Are Healed.) That can inspire a variety of different responses that can make reconciliation very difficult, requiring generous servings of humility and courage.

Yet Jesus ordered us to seek reconciliation with anyone whom we have offended—and, for that matter, anyone who has offended us. In spite of all the complications, if two people desire reconciliation, they can find it, with or without the involvement of others, as long as they are willing to recognize and accept that reconciliation in this life can never be free of “fuzzy edges”. In fact, Jesus provides no other option for achieving reconciliation.

Through all the complications, it is vital to know that no merely human circumstances have veto power over forgiveness. If the offended party is unavailable—long missing, dead, or unwilling to reconcile for any number of possible reasons—this can complicate matters but can never blockade the peace that God promises in Jesus. Any individual who sincerely seeks forgiveness may have it, with or without the participation of the offended party. (I’ll post more on this topic in a few days.)

True love is shown when there is genuine desire for genuine reconciliation, for such love is powerfully made known when the sinner knows he hasn’t earned it but it is given just the same. This is where love is proven. I suspect that love is perhaps most truly shown in such circumstances. This kind of love is akin to the love Jesus commands us to show to those who cannot pay us back. “While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10).

Help me to forgive those who have sinned against me
When we ask for forgiveness, we are indeed asking someone to give us something that may be very difficult to give. In some ways, it is easier to ask for forgiveness than to grant it. One has much to gain but maybe little to lose by asking.

Yet Jesus has made it clear, very clear, that our own forgiveness is dependent upon our forgiving those who sin against us. Many, many people have sinned against me, sometimes grievously. I’m sure that every priest can say the same thing. We are often unjustly the targets of people’s angers and hurts; it is part of our ministry. Even though I know this, I have been angry for many years at some people for savage hurts they have done me.

Yet I must forgive—certainly for my own ability to be forgiven, but also for the sake of those who have sinned against me. Jesus himself, and his first martyr Stephen after him, prayed for those who were unjustly killing them at the time they were doing the praying. (See Luke 23:34 and Acts 7:60.) Forgiving others is a critical precondition for receiving forgiveness for our own sins—not like the turning of a switch, but as a condition into which we grow over time.

Give me desire and grace for amendment of life
Once we recognize that we have sinned, , we must set about doing whatever we can to prevent a recurrence of the sin. To achieve this, human effort and divine power must work together; hence “amendment of life” requires both desire for it and grace. Grace provided without desire for it is rare but possible, but is intended to build desire without which the grace may be unproductive. An example is the man by the pool of Bethesda whom Jesus healed and then called to forsake his sin. (See John 5:1-14). As for desire without grace... well, there is no such thing, though grace may be delayed until the timing is right. I do not believe that grace will be denied if genuine desire is there.

One may think of the broken bone that, immediately after the injury, hurts and hampers normal activity, yet eventually grows to be stronger than before. Most leaders of the people of God were displayed as great sinners: Noah, Moses, David, Peter, Paul, etc. Paul even boasted of it—boasting not of his sin, but of the grace of God that was manifested to all because of his sin. “‘My grace in enough for you: for power is in full stretch in weakness.’ It is, then, about my weaknesses that I am happiest of all to boast, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me... For it is when I am weak that I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9, 19b).

This is the conclusion of the well-known passage about Paul’s thorn (2 Corinthians 12:7ff)—probably either a chronic illness or a besetting sin that God refused to remove. It was Paul’s own weakness—whatever it was—that revealed to him the powerful grace of God.

We must couple John’s, “No one who is a child of God sins” (1 John 3:9a) with Paul’s, “The good thing I want to do, I never do; the evil thing which I do not want—that is what I do” (Romans 7:19). This is far too complex a matter for reflection on a blogpost that has already grown long, though I think that a good place to start would be to consider what is in the heart of the believer. When we truly and genuinely desire holiness, to love God and our neighbor, our sins will be kind of like “exhaust” on the journey, i.e. not willfully evil or deliberately injurious to others as the primary pattern of life. That is, they are evidence of weakness and imperfection rather than corruption that has been embraced while God is rejected.

Let me live in joy
The final stage in knowing the infinite love of God through the process of renewal after sin is to accept it all humbly and gladly, with childlike simplicity. We cannot do this, of course. Writing the points of these two blogposts down as if they were points in an instruction manual makes it come across as rather artificial, and of course no real relationship can be like that. We must always live with rough edges, incompletenesses, anomalies, and imperfections. God knows that.

Where John taught that “Perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18a), we have to hope that maybe pretty good love reduces fear, and that we will grow step and step, stage by stage, seeking the holiness “without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14) but which is granted only by the will of God. (See Hebrews 10:10).

Finally we must believe that, “No created thing whatever will be able to come between us and the love of God, known to us in Christ our Lord” (Romans 8:39). By the grace and in the economy of God, therefore, even our sins and the sins of others against us can lead us and them more and more deeply into the fathomless depths of joy and peace and truth and love. In this life, these will always be mixed with pain and grief, but at the end we may expect that God “will wipe away every tear” (Revelation 21:4) and our joy “no one will take” from us (John 16:22b).