Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Plowing the Sea

“Can one plow the sea with oxen?” (Amos 6:12) This is the prophet’s image for misguided people thinking they are okay when in fact, having departed from the way of God, they are trying to do something that is both impossible and foolish.

A few days ago I went into a tobacconist’s shop. For many years, I have considered smoking to be one of the two greatest evil causes of death in the world. (The other is abortion.) If the figures I have heard are accurate, tobacco has caused more misery in the form of grotesque tumors, lingering illnesses with prolonged suffering, and more widespread death and grief than any war.

Yet, I must admit, there is a mystique about smoking. The scratch of a match, the aroma of a butane lighter, tamping aromatic tobacco into the bowl of a pipe, wreaths of smoke can be strangely seductive. Sherlock Holmes, hobbits and wizards, and Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver’s dad (I think) all smoke pipes. Gandalf even blows smoke rings. While I was in the tobacconist’s shop I almost toyed for an instant with the idea of buying a cigar just for the fun of blowing smoke rings. Forty years ago I did it a few times for the mystique, but I didn’t like the awful aftertaste, headaches, ruination of my taste buds, and stale repulsive odor in my clothes.

The reality is that even a little smoking is unpleasant, malodorous, and makes you sick. There is nothing redeeming whatever about it. As long ago as the 1950s when I was a child, cigarettes were sometimes called “coffin nails”. The Surgeon General’s Reports that began to come out as a result of many studies only revealed what was already commonly known and widely believed. The reports just gave us more information about it, and showed that what we all knew was even worse than we had believed.

So I always shake my head in wonder whenever I see anyone smoking today, especially a young person. It isn’t cool, fun, or impressive. It’s a sign of empty-headedness.

Like heresy. It’s not just wrong. It’s not just cruel. It’s a sign of empty-headedness. Whenever one goes off the beam of authentic, adventuresome, exciting, evangelical, Catholic Christianity, and holds to that wayward course, disaster eventually results. When it is nearly the entire leadership of a Church and a lot of followers of “where the power is”, the disaster becomes extensive. But it isn’t permanent, though much damage is done to many souls during the time of apostasy. (See this old post of mine on the subject.)

And so it is today in the pseudo Episcopal Church. The spiritual warfare that has been eating the Church from within for decades is becoming more identifiable for what it is. Under its current leadership, the most public assistant is a lawyer. We haven’t heard much about “inclusivity” lately, I think. The principle of “inclusivity”, which for the past thirty years or more has been the banner on the flagship of the juggernaut to falsehood, has been abandoned. The lust for power seeks now, openly and boldly, to root out the opposition and, like a spider, reaches out clutching limbs in a widening circle, grasping after control. Those who believe that they are in power enforce the canons to the slightest jot and tittle in order to inhibit and depose faithful priests and bishops; they encourage lawsuits, crush charitable relationships between people of differing convictions, and contemptuously brush away appeals from all other authorities—and often do so with disregard for canonical and due process, and scorn for anyone who points out that they are doing so.

But they are not in power. They are plowing the sea. Both impossible and foolish. Doesn’t history show repeatedly that those who clutch for power always lose? Like smoking, there is a mystique in power, and the adulating fans of the higher leadership of the Episcopal Church want to reach out and touch it. But in the long run, it is not power but perseverance in the faith, not fans but faithfulness to Jesus, not plowing the sea but planting the seed that get results. It has always, always been so. Heretics, hypocrites, and heavies are empty-headed—as foolish as those who take up smoking. Plowers of the sea.

They are not in power—they only think they are. The Church is God’s, not theirs. Their time will come.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Wounds That Don't Heal

Isn’t it curious that the risen, glorified body of Jesus retained the wounds of his crucifixion? “Jesus spoke to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; look, here are my hands. Give me your hand. Put it into my side’” (John 20:27). For that matter, how did Thomas know before he believed in the risen Jesus that the wounds of Jesus remained in the Body that the other disciples claimed had been resurrected? “Unless I see the holes that the nails made in his hands …” (John 20:25). Maybe the others told him about them.

There is glory in the wounds of Jesus. The last book of the Bible makes that clear: The One who has triumphed is described as the “Lion of the tribe of Judah”, but is presented as “a Lamb that seemed to have been sacrificed” (Revelation 5:5-6). But why? The wounds of Jesus on his hands (almost certainly wrists), feet, side, and brow were imposed during the time he was mocked and then crucified. The five red wax nails in the Paschal candle represent these wounds, pressed into the heart of this central Easter symbol. By the shedding of Jesus’ blood, the world was remade—hence, the glory of the wounds. (I have reflected on this profound mystical reality on this blog before, such as here.)

What, then, of our own wounds that don’t heal? There are some hurts that are “life wounds”. They don’t heal. Ever.

Shortly after I became Rector of Blessed Sacrament, a family in the parish suffered a great grief. A five-year-old boy had come home sick from kindergarten. The next morning his parents woke up and found that he had died during the night. The boy’s name was Thomas, and he died on December 21, St. Thomas’ Day. Every St. Thomas’ Day after that, his father attended the Mass until he retired and moved away. He told me once, probably twenty years after his son had died, “It doesn’t hurt any more,” but I am sure that it did. How could it not?

Some wounds are “life wounds”. They don’t heal. Oh, one learns to get by day after day, and the immediate shock subsides, but the hurt remains like an interior stigmata, always bleeding and never healing. Wounds that children receive in abusive families. Even the very best of families can inflict “life wounds” on children. Betrayals by friends, spouses, and others whom we trust. Tragic losses like house fires that destroy heirlooms, permanent debilitating injuries, and so forth wound us in ways that never heal. One learns to get by day after day, but the hurt remains.

How can our “life wounds” become, like the wounds of Jesus, avenues of glory? The easy, and probably correct, answer, is that those with “life wounds” are to take them to Jesus. Easy to say, hard to do. What does it mean to “take them to Jesus”? Well, sometimes I think it means not having the pain removed or healed, but learning to accept it as a burden by which we, and often others, are shaped more into a Christ-like mold than we are now. Discipleship must include some unwelcome facets.

When I was very small and attending Sunday School at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Van Nuys, California, I remember in the children’s chapel a very large black and white photograph of a man dressed to look like Jesus, standing on a rock and carrying a lamb on his shoulder. Jesus is our Savior, the One who “calls his own by name”, the Good Shepherd. A great image for a child.

But Jesus is also the One who said that his followers must take up a cross. He said that his yoke was easy and his burden light, and that those who labored and were heavily burdened were to come to him. Still, however you look at it, discipleship does include wearing a yoke and carrying a cross. That must mean that sometimes discipleship will be hard. We are to die with Christ so that we may be raised to the new life. Death comes first. Resurrection requires that death come first—otherwise, it is merely healing and not resurrection.

The longer we live the more “life wounds” we get. I suspect, faith being my support, that such woundedness is for this life only, and that in the next the wounds we have carried faithfully and patiently—or at least learned eventually to be patient with—will be marks of glory. They serve a purpose. Now and then I can even feel it in this life, like seeing a light through gauze. Maybe the mystery of unresolved pain is to compel us to put our trust more and more in the only One who will never be cruel to us, betray us, or abandon us—ever. And who promises that the “tears of every eye” will be wiped away (Revelation 21:4).