Thursday, April 30, 2009

Religion and Torture

I saw this headline while looking at CNN: "Survey: Churchgoers more likely to support torture."(yes, put aside the definite problems in their survey methodology and all that). I was confused for a second. "What? Really? But... I'm a churchgoer and I'm adamantly opposed to torture..." Then I thought that maybe the media was biased against Christians. Then I wondered whether this would be yet another item used to condemn the church. "If Christians can support physically torturing another human being even though torture doesn't yield anything helpful and is an attack on humanity itself..." 

Seriously, I cannot even pretend to comprehend why someone would support torture, especially Christians. People who believe and preach the love of God and God's amazing merciful grace for us all should be the last, the very last to ever support such acts. Our Lord was nailed to a cross; God was basically tortured to death. Martyrs throughout the centuries have been tortured and/or executed for the faith. 

The argument that torture could ever lead to useful information fails to understand what torture really does. If you were tortured, you would either tell the person whatever they wanted to hear or defy them. The emphasis is on "whatever they wanted to hear." You'd possibly confess to any crime they accused you of, you would denounce innocent people just so they'd stop hurting you. How is that going to help us pursue justice? How will that bring the guilty to trial? It doesn't. It only helps America's enemies by giving them moral ammunition against us. America is too great to lose its soul by torturing. 

Reading this article made me worry about the Church's reputation. Yes, the Church should be concerned about how she is perceived. The Gospel is preached by sinners, yes, but redeemed sinners who must show God's grace in their words and lives. 

But look at the bottom of the article. Mainline Protestants were listed as boasting the highest percentage of people who would say torture was never justified. And, get this: they defined what a "Mainline Protestant" was. "Such as Episcopalians, Lutherans and Presbyterians." 

Huh. We got a ways to go until Christians in general are the group most likely to oppose torture, but it's a start. 

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sustaining the Enthusiasm of Easter

For this entire season we begin the mass with "Alleluia! Christ is risen!" instead of the usual invocation of the Trinity, but how do we maintain the emotion and enthusiasm that the first proclamation during the Easter Vigil brought? During Lent we sacrificed our alleluias, remembering the trials and tribulations of Christ. It wasn't a joyous season but a holy and helpful one. 

Now that Lent is over, we can again proclaim "Alleluia!" with all the joy our hearts and voices can muster, but how do we realize the radicalness of what we're saying? Seriously, we're talking about how Jesus was raised on the third day after he had been nailed to a cross. His incarnation, life, death and resurrection all form the lynchpin of history; all of creation was waiting for that glorious moment when death itself would be conquered. 

And it get really, really easy to forget that. The minute I could eat chocolate cream eggs in celebration of the resurrection, I did. No waiting. It felt great to remember Christ's resurrection with each delicious, chocolatey bite. 

But now that the fast of Lent is fading in memory, it's harder to remember all that. It's harder to say Alleluia! with the same enthusiasm as before. For me it's like I've jumped straight into the season after Pentecost. 

So, Christian friends, how do you maintain your enthusiasm? Do you feel a kind of "Alleluia fade" that I do? And if you're not Christian, have you had experiences where something really beautiful, holy and important kind of feels, well, old hat? 

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Who is a victim?

Last night I went to see the film, "April Showers." The funeral scene in the movie was shot at the cathedral here in Omaha and the dean appears in a speaking role, so I had to see it. All the wierdness aside of seeing the place where I work and worship as a scene in a movie, the subject matter set me to thinking. 

The film is based on the experiences of youth who survived the shooting at Columbine. In the credits they list all the victims of school shootings from the 60's onward. In the list of the victims for Columbine and Virginia Tech, however, three names stood out: the names of the shooters. 

It was definitely an interesting decision on the part of the producers, but I have to ask: is it appropriate? Does it demean those whom they killed by inviting pity for the shooters? 

I don't know if it was the best decision. We can pray for sociopaths, we can pray for murderers, but do we consider them victims, too? It was troubling that nothing set them apart on those lists. No asterisk, no note to say that they were responsible for the bloodshed. 

What's the appropriate Christian response? The best response would be to pray for the shooters and for the families and friends who still grieve the loss. We cannot and should not try to diminish the evils committed by those young people by trying to blame others for bullying them or for not seeing the mental illness or sociopathy, but we pray for the dead regardless of who they were.

And then we comfort the living because we can really do something for them. 

Saturday, April 11, 2009

A blessed Easter?

Tonight was the Easter Vigil. It's a great time to make the transition from Lent to Easter- from the death and suffering of Christ to his triumphant resurrection. It's a time for us to rejoice in his victory over death and to celebrate our redemption through his life. 

After the service tonight I decided to indulge and go to a restaraunt nearby that serves some of the most delicious Chinese food ever made. As I sat there in that mostly deserted place (I believe they get most of their business from take-out and deliveries), I watched the world around me. I could hear  a couple arguing at the nearby bus stop. I watched as a gang began loitering just down the street a little. I overheard as a man and woman came into the restaraunt, the woman either high on some drugs or else unwell mentally and the guy seemed a little manipulative of her. 

What did I see? That all of this is what Christ came to save. It's like how after a death we see joy in the world and want to scream, "Do you know who died today? Do you know how much pain and sorrow I have?" This is the flip side: we see the resurrection and know that Christ has emerged victorious from his crucifixion and now sits at the right hand of God, but the world that doesn't know him is still immersed in the mire of suffering and death. Not to say that we don't sit in suffering and death, too, but we have a perspective of eternal hope that can help us. 

Thank God for showing us this. In this time of joy we must remember to pray for a world still suffering, just like how we could not let the deep introspection of Lent turn us away from the needs and joys of creation. 

Have a blessed Easter!
Christ is Risen!
The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia! 

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Christ our High Priest

As promised, here is the 'text' of the sermon I delivered on the fifth Sunday of Lent.


The Greeks who came to worship for the Passover must have seen Jesus as a great teacher. Greek culture esteemed wisdom and philosophy, so why not come to listen to this strange Jewish philosopher? Perhaps these Greeks saw Jesus as Israel’s Socrates; some thinker who astounded and angered so many powerful people with his words. The Greeks then wanted to come to Jesus, ask him a few questions, sit and listen to his words and parables.

Meeting Christ, though, is more than sitting at his feet and listening to his parables and teaching. Jesus is not summed up in the words he spoke. To really see Christ requires us to see the entirety of his life and to see who he really is. His teaching, his life, his death, and his resurrection are tied up together; they cannot be separated from each other.

He did not come as just a sage or teacher; to see Christ as merely a teacher severs his word from his work and life. Like all good teachers, the teaching should be reflected in the work and life of the teacher. Christ was sent by God the Father to be the shepherd of the sheep, to be the Messiah, and to be our high priest.

Jesus represents us before God and acts on our behalf. Christ lifts us up to God and represents our humanity and our frailty. Christ cries and rejoices with us when we turn again to God after having wandered away, and Christ cries in mourning when we walk away.

Christ as the go-between of God and humanity means that Christ’s teaching is not about making us blameless and sinless before God but in preparing all our hearts, our souls and our minds for our relationship with God. We cannot satisfy the letter of the Law. We cannot be perfect, but we can be prepared for a life of justice and love which brings us into closer communion with God.

Our high priest does not satisfy God with bloody animal sacrifices but is himself the sacrifice so that we can know that God wants us, wants our humanity, not the blood of bulls. Christ offered himself so that the bond between Creation and its Creator might be healed, strengthened, and brought into perfect union.

Once a year in ancient Israel, the high priest would enter into the innermost chamber of the Temple, the Holy of Holies. In this chamber God dwelt, and no one would dare enter into God’s sacred space. The high priest had to enter the chamber with a little rope tied around his ankle so that in case he died in God’s presence he could be pulled out without anyone else having to run into that holy chamber. For who can gaze on God’s face and live? Which of us could dare to look at God’s face? To see the Most Holy? To gaze into the eyes of the Creator of all that is? Who would willingly risk walking into the presence of God Almighty in the hopes of reconciling this world filled with injustice, destruction and hatred with the God who is Love?

Christ as our high priest makes that risk for us. Christ, being the Son of God, enters into the chamber of God the Father to continually bring us into a right relationship with God, and to bring the powerful grace of God to us. The Son of God became incarnate to draw all of creation to God and to bring God to creation.

But in order to serve Christ our high priest, we must follow him. We cannot serve Christ without following in his footsteps as a loyal servant, always ready to say, “Your servant is listening.” But if we follow Christ in our lives and in our deaths, do we not also have to approach God’s innermost chamber? To walk into the presence of Almighty God alongside our High Priest and to risk gazing on the Face of God?

My mother frequently told me as a child that her greatest fear was Judgment Day because it was the day when she would look upon God, look deep into those eyes of love, and realize she had not loved enough. She worried that she did not love God enough and that she did not love her neighbor enough. To me, that would be the worst Hell imaginable: to look into God’s loving face and see how much I had NOT loved. To see how much I had not loved God when it is the greatest joy to love God. To see how much I had not loved my neighbor because bearing hatred in my heart was “easier” or made me feel righteous. To see how much I had not loved myself because I had deemed myself unworthy of all love.

Looking into God’s face is both our joy and our judgment. When we stand before God who is Love, we are finally given what our hearts long for: perfect union with God and creation. But when we stand before God we are also reminded of how much we are called to love. We are called to love God with all our hearts, all our strength and all our minds, and we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Christ’s teaching prepares our lives for that day when we are brought into God’s presence, our hands clutching Christ’s hand, clinging to the boldness and the compassion of our high priest. Our ministry of love and justice is not what allows us to enter so boldly into the Presence of God; we follow our High Priest who is perfect, bringing ourselves as an offering of love to God.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Monday in Holy Week 2009

Today we march closer and closer to the Last Supper, Crucifixion and Resurrection. For the past few days the clergy around me have emphasized the mystery of Holy Week. What we're talking about is sacred story which invites us into something larger than we can comprehend. 

It's almost like the dark wonder in looking at the stars in a clear night sky: as much as we might understand the facts regarding stars, their motions, and their incredible distance from us and from each other, you can only "get" the night sky by letting your heart pound a little as you look at those marvelous lights. It's felt, but it's not a "warm fuzzy" feeling. It's a feeling that calls your whole body to wonder at the enormity of creation. 

This is like our experience of Holy Week; we might know the facts of the passion, but before it all we must be mute and throw our whole selves into the wonder of the final days of Christ on earth. 

Friday, April 3, 2009

Is it the truth, or is it a lie?

It's been an exciting week for me. On Sunday I preached at Church of the Resurrection (the text of which will be finding its way here shortly), and for the past few days I've been at a Benedictine monastery for a Lenten retreat. 

The monastery was the same place where we'd gone at the beginning of this internship, and it was actually nice to be back at the place. I've changed a lot since I was there; I'm a bit more confident in what I do, I've learned a lot about myself and have realized that I might actually be called to the priesthood. 

These times of retreat and quiet can be scary and dangerous. Sometimes we find out things about ourselves that are unpleasant and that we try to hide, but sometimes quiet can leave us alone with the Accuser, Satan. Now, I'm not going to get into a discussion about Satan, but suffice to say that what might seem to be the "dark truth" about us can be a distortion and a lie, too. Humility comes from learning the truth about ourselves, not from believing we are "a worm and no man." It's this facet of spirituality that we who struggle with guilt and shame need to accept. 

It's so easy to think that we are incredibly weak, flawed, wretched and just plain un-lovable human beings when we struggle with shame. We like to think that we know ourselves that well. People can be deluded about their greatness, we think, but people who know how horrible they are thinking the truth. 

For a long time I knew that others were to be loved and cared for. Everyone was a beloved child of God, and no one should hate themselves for their faults. The only problem was that I put a little asterisk (*) there like you see on packaging as a little disclaimer: "well, that refers to everyone but you." That little asterisk of unlovability enabled me to sit in judgment of myself. I was going to be strict with myself. Hating myself was OK, but I wouldn't allow someone else to hate themselves because I knew they were loved by God. When people would tell me that I was worthy of love, I would nod but reject it. That little asterisk seemed like I was being humble, being truthful to the Gospel. 

Humility requires being open to the truth. Humility is not at its heart about knowing how "bad" you are or how flawed you are. Humility is recognizing the truth about yourself and taking it to heart. Humility requires you to recognize your talents, skills, flaws and imperfections. You have to know how good you are and how bad you are; all of us do good things but we also all do bad things. We're not perfectly good, but we're not perfectly evil, either. 

If you've been struggling with self-hatred and despair, it's time to leave it here. That little voice that tells you you're a horrible person outside of God's love is not your conscience; it's the voice of Satan. The voice that tears you down and tears you apart and does not build you up into a child of God does not speak the truth; the truth may hurt when you hear it but it also helps you grow as a child of God. 

If you're like me, giving up that little asterisk of unlovability, giving up that idea of "I'm unlovable" is hard. There might be the fear that you will become arrogant or that you will stop listening to your conscience. It's a possibility, but it's doubtful. As long as you seek the truth and not the lies, then you're in good shape.