Monday, July 25, 2016

The Disciples' Prayer

A Sunday School teacher began her lesson with a question, "Boys and girls, what do we know about God?"
A hand shot up in the air. "He is an artist!" said the kindergarten boy.
"Really? How do you know?" the teacher asked.
"You know - Our Father, who does art in Heaven... "
Polls report that 55% of Americans pray daily and another 21% pray at least weekly.[1] The Lord's Prayer, part of today's reading from Luke, also occurs in Matthew's gospel.[2] The brevity of Luke's version compared to Matthew's suggests that the Lukan version is older because texts tend to expand through retelling and revision. The Lord's Prayer both summarizes Jesus' teachings and teaches us how to pray.[3]
First, the prayer addresses God as Father, asking that God's name be hallowed or made holy. The word Father emphasizes that we are God's children. Persons who find thinking of God as a father or in masculine terms troubling can usefully substitute Mother in their private devotions. Mother and Father are both biblical metaphors for God; both, at their best, point to God's loving embrace and care. Matthew's addition of the word heavenly is a helpful reminder that many people, including me, often feel as if God is remote or distant. We hallow God's name by honoring God's presence by not misusing or demeaning God's name, keeping a weekly Sabbath, and intentionally thinking of God during our waking hours.
Second, praying for God's kingdom to come, which Matthew underscores by adding a repetitive petition that God's will be done on earth as in heaven, defines our hope and the goal towards which Christians strive. If God's kingdom existing on earth depended only on God, presumably God's kingdom would now fully exist throughout the cosmos. However, God works primarily, but not exclusively, through people. Homelessness in Hawaii, murdered police officers across the US, slain innocents in Nice, war in Syria, de facto apartheid in Palestinian territories, and many other evils highlight the urgency of God's people engaging more assertively building God's kingdom on earth. Thus, this petition is more about us than God. We pray that God will help us to overcome indifference and inertia so that we will love all of our neighbors as much as we love ourselves.[4]
Third, praying for our daily bread has a different emphasis in the twenty-first century than it had in the first century. Most of Jesus' hearers were peasants working in a subsistence economy who struggled daily to obtain sufficient food. While some of us probably live paycheck to paycheck, none of us faces the real prospect of being hungry tomorrow if something goes wrong today. We are more affluent, and some much more affluent, than were most of Jesus' original hearers. Consequently, praying for our daily bread is now praying for freedom from the idolatry of believing that our money or possessions can offer us security. Churches receive an offering as part of worship partially to thank God for God's good gifts but more importantly because generously contributing our money and possessions to building God's kingdom can liberate us from the false belief that possessions or money can guarantee security against life's vicissitudes.
A woman lay in a hospital bed, her body ravaged by a rapidly spreading cancer. Day after day, her family prayed that God would heal her. A silent, pervasive disappointment had taken root among the family because the cancer continued to spread in spite of their prayers. God did not seem to care about her. Driven by desperation and frustration the woman began to reflect about how they were praying. After much thought she told her family, “Today let’s not pray that I will be healed; God knows that I hate this illness and want to be healed. Instead, let’s pray that whether or not I am healed, what I really want is to feel close to God.” She was a woman whose begging for bread grew into a request for living bread.
Fourth, we pray for God's forgiveness. Three English words translate Greek word hamartia: sin, debt, and trespass. Sin denotes rule breaking, debt an unrepaid loan, and trespass an inappropriate border transgression. Spiritually, all three illuminate different types and areas of sin. None is inherently superior or more theologically accurate than the other two. Sin, debt, and trespass each appear in contemporary versions of the Lord's Prayer. Alternatively, an unknown pre-K child may have unwittingly framed the most memorable translation: "And forgive us our trash baskets as we forgive those who put trash in our baskets."
Jesus ties experiencing God's forgiveness to forgiving those who have sinned against us. Specifically, if you wish to experience God's forgiveness, you must forgive those who have lied to you or otherwise hurt you, failed to repay kindness or a loan you extended to them, or abused your trust or respect. When I harden my heart – and the heart in the Bible represents the whole self – against others, I unintentionally but invariably harden my heart to God's presence in my life. My difficulty in receiving God's forgiveness lies not with God but with me.
Fifth, we pray that God will not bring us to the time of trial. This final petition is one of two reasons that I strongly prefer the new version of the Lord's Prayer found in the Book of Common Prayer.[5] Asking God not to lead us into temptation is nonsense. The devil, not God, leads people into temptation. Incidentally, the other reason that I prefer the new version of the Lord's Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer is its use of you and your instead of thy and thine. English is a living language and usage continuously changes. When translated into English in the sixteenth century, the Lord's Prayer used thy and thine because those were the familiar terms, emphasizing our intimacy with our divine parent. You and your were formal terms used to address one's social betters. In the intervening centuries, the usage has reversed and pronouns that originally signified intimacy now ironically connote distance and formal respect.
Saying the Lord’s Prayer is a wonderful habit that can inculcate the pattern of prayer into our spirit. Praying the Lord’s Prayer is even better, that is, when the words carry our spirit to God and God’s spirit to us, when through our meditations on the petitions we hear the voice of God speaking to us. Living the Lord's Prayer is better yet, because then we actually follow Jesus, living as his disciples.

[1] Michael Lipka, "5 facts about prayer," Pew Research Center, May 4, 2016.
[2] Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4.
[3] N.T. Wright, The Lord and His Prayer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), p. 2.
[4] N. T Wright, The Lord and His Prayer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), p.31.
[5] Cf. Book of Common Prayer, p. 364.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Life after death? Part 1

In listening to parishioners, I've learned that life after death can appeal in several ways. Some persons enjoy this life but also hope for even greater enjoyment in an unlimited future of life after death. Conversely, some persons experience so much exploitation, pain, suffering, or deprivation in this life that the possibility of a new life without pain, suffering, tears, or death appeals greatly. Of course, the abuse of this appeal prompted Marx, among others, to characterize religion as the opiate of the masses. More broadly, many persons believe that this life rarely, if ever, provides justice for both the righteous and the wicked, a justice that seems achievable only after death. Finally, if God's love for people is as great as many persons believe, then God's infinite love can never find fulfillment in finitude but only in eternity.

Regardless of life after death's appeal, some of its traditional attributes now seem dissatisfying to people to whom I have ministered. Illustratively, change appears essential for anything to remain continually interesting, enjoyable, or beautiful. The prospect of heavenly eternal stasis – an unending, unchanging perfection – feels more like eternal punishment (hell) than a blessing (heaven). Jokes about individuals preferring to party in hell instead of eternally strumming heavenly harps are funny largely because of our aversion to stasis.

Moreover, historic Christian understandings of what happens when a person dies, views that usually presume an empty tomb and Jesus' bodily resurrection, are increasingly anachronistic in view of advances in astronomy, particle physics, and biology.

Astronomers, after losing their initial clashes with Christianity, have triumphed over Christian efforts to cling to literal interpretations of the Bible's three-tiered cosmology (heaven, earth, and hell). Heaven and hell, if they exist, are almost assuredly not actual physical places.

Particle physicists and biologists have shown that the human body, which is comprised of trillions of atoms, constantly exchanges substantial numbers of atoms with the environment by ingesting air, water, and nutrients and then egesting various wastes. This occurs not only in obvious ways (e.g., respiration and digestion) but also in less obvious ways (e.g., atoms entering and exiting the body through the skin).

Consequently, life after death does not, and physically cannot, denote a literal continuation or resumption of a person's bodily existence. Numerous atoms in each person's body have previously been part of other individuals' bodies. Intriguingly, scientists estimate that every person now alive probably has one or more atoms that had been, at least temporarily, part of Jesus' body. Literal continuation or resumption of a person's bodily existence would thus entail multiple people simultaneously sharing an atom. Replication of atoms might allow an apparent continuation or resumption of bodily existence but would in fact be at best a copy of the original and not the original itself.

Additionally, if life after death denotes a continuation of physical existence, then many people would fare poorly, stuck with bodies that most of us would strongly prefer not to have. Many elderly, mentally retarded, physically handicapped, and severely diseased persons of my acquaintance would consider themselves accursed if life after death denotes continuation of one's physical existence.

Simplistic suggestions that transitioning to life after death eliminates all disease, handicaps, and other physical limitations/deterioration are overly facile, ignoring the indissoluble physical oneness of human existence. I am who I am partially because of disease, handicaps, and bodily deterioration. Changing any of those, even for the better, would profoundly alter, with no guarantees of improving, the person who I am. That is, my body might be physically perfect but my mental processes, emotions, and personality (all aspects of physical existence) might suffer significant impairment caused by narcissism, a sense of invulnerability, etc.

In sum, the image of an empty tomb may be a powerful metaphor but offers little substantive insight, given the advances in science, into the possibility or nature of life after death. Platitudinous affirmations of physical resurrection and life after death endlessly repeated in Eastertide, at funerals, and on other occasions, partially explain why growing numbers of educated reject traditional Christianity.

Theories about life after death that spiritualize resurrection superficially appear to rest on firmer foundations. Gospel accounts of the resurrected Jesus are clearly paradoxical and point to a mysterious, qualitatively new form of existence. For example, the risen Jesus suddenly appears in a locked room yet is sufficiently corporeal to eat a meal and for the disciples to touch him. The New Testament epistles enticingly refer to the human body as a seed that must die so that God can give it a new body and of the need for mortality to put on immortality.

Spiritualizing life after death, however, poses its own set of difficulties. Among the least of these is describing a credible twenty-first century cosmology that includes a spiritual (as opposed to physical) heaven and, depending upon one's theology, hell. Imagining a spiritualized heaven is arguably little more difficult or problematic than imagining the multiple parallel universes that some scientists hypothesize exist.

However, spiritualizing life after death raises two questions unanswered in spite of centuries of discourse. First, what is the nexus between the spiritual and the physical? That is, how does the immaterial spiritual interface with the material, physical world? No explanation of that interface has gained widespread traction among scientists and theologians. In the absence of such an interface, how can humans, whose senses and cognitive processes are all physical, think, speak, or otherwise describe, much less interact with, the spiritual? This dilemma is relevant to all forms of revelation, from mysticism to the inspiration of scripture.

Second, what does it mean to describe humans as spiritual? If human spirituality connotes that humans have an ethereal, eternal aspect, then what is the origin of that spiritual aspect? Postulating that God created through evolution, is the spirit a latent, barely developed aspect of non-human lifeforms that only becomes fully developed in humans? If so, what was the catalyst for that development? Since evolution appears to proceed through random events and natural selection, is it reasonable to believe that God somehow knew that spirit's more fully developed emergence would coincide with the evolution of humans? Even if one can explain the evolutionary development of an ethereal, immaterial spirit, the conundrum of describing the nexus between the physical and the spiritual remains unsolved.

Conversely, if human spirituality does not connote an ethereal, eternal aspect of human existence, then what does stating that humans are spiritual beings mean? The second part of this essay, which will appear next Thursday, begins with my answer to that question, explores a contemporary concept of life after death that I find attractive, and then examines how diminished confidence in life after death has affected individuals and altered the Church and its ministry.

Monday, July 18, 2016

For whom are you Jesus?

A distraught woman tried many times to contact her priest only to discover that it was his day off. She contacted him the next day and scolded him severely. "Father, I needed you yesterday," she said, "and you were not there for me. You have let me down. I cannot believe you would take a day off when so many people like me need you." Then she added, "The devil never takes a day off."
The priest, a little irritated and with tongue in cheek, responded, "And if I didn't take a day off I would be just like the devil, wouldn't I?"
Two weeks ago, with no idea of what today's gospel reading might be I began re-reading Richard Gula's book, The Call to Holiness.[1] Perhaps my choice of a book illustrates a serendipitous synchronicity in which we can discern God at work. Gula, a Sulpician Roman Catholic priest, believes that God calls people to live at the intersection of spirituality and morality. That is, we follow Jesus by emulating both Mary and Martha as depicted in today's gospel reading.[2]
We, like the priest in the anecdote with which I began this sermon, presumably desire to be like God rather than the devil. Keeping a weekly Sabbath – setting aside one day per week to relax, enjoy loved ones, worship, and engage in other spiritual activities – is fundamental for spiritual health. Optimal Sabbath activities are activities that help you to experience God's love, deepen your knowledge of God's wisdom, and grow stronger spiritually. For Mary, at least on the particular day of the incident recorded in today's gospel reading, sitting at Jesus' feet and listening to him teach was one such activity. For many of us, gathering here at Holy Nativity with friends and family, hearing scripture read and then expounded, sharing prayers and concerns, and joining together in a common meal at God's altar are important activities for maintaining spiritual health. What spiritual practices most help you to experience God's love and live abundantly?
On the other hand, Martha did not host Jesus and his disciples to gain social standing. Instead, she was hard at work feeding the hungry and the homeless. Remember, Jesus during his ministry had no home, that is, he was a homeless person. Furthermore, Jesus never rebukes Martha for being concerned about the physical needs of her guests. Perhaps Martha felt overwhelmed by the amount of work to care for their guests. Perhaps Martha simply felt petulant, envious of her sister Mary spending more time with Jesus. We don't know and it does not matter. Elsewhere in the Bible, we read that Jesus loved both Martha and Mary.[3] And when Jesus visits the two sisters following the death of their brother Lazarus, Martha is the one who rushes to meet Jesus, confident that had he been present he could have healed Lazarus before he died. In short, suggesting we face a dichotomous choice of emulating Martha or Mary is wrong: both were spiritual women whose spirituality empowered and animated their love for others.
Jesus frequently spent time in the wilderness alone, finding renewal in seasons of prayer. He also worshiped in synagogue and the Jerusalem Temple. Concurrently, he taught his hearers to discern God's kingdom when they saw the sick healed, the dead raised, the captive liberated, the hungry fed, and the thirsty given water.
It is insufficient for us to emulate Mary by figuratively sitting at Jesus' feet. We also must emulate Martha by housing the homeless, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, working to end gun violence, and so forth. I read recently of a wise priest who recommends that people exploring Christianity commit to both attending the Eucharist and working in a soup kitchen every week for six months.
Three differences between the Church and other helping groups are important. First, God sets our agenda. God calls us to love our neighbor and to be stewards of creation. Second, because we put God at the center of our service, God both guides each of us into one or more appropriate ways of serving and is present with us. Third, when our love proves inadequate, God empowers us. For example, when my neighbor seems unlovable, when I want to exploit the earth rather than to protect a fragile environment and endangered species, when the task before me seems impossible, then the gift of the Holy Spirit that we received in Baptism carries us forward.
[A] group of computer [salespeople] from Silicon Valley went to Chicago for a sales convention. They assured their [spouses] that they would be back to the hotel in plenty of time for dinner. But one thing led to another and the meeting ran overtime. As they raced to the El, one salesperson inadvertently kicked over a table supporting a basket of apples. Without stopping, they all reached the train with a sigh of relief. All but one.
This man paused, and felt a twinge of compunction for the boy whose apple stand had been overturned. He waved goo-bye to his companions and returned to the apple stand. He was glad he did. The ten-year old boy was blind. The man gathered up the apples and noticed that several of them were bruised. He handed the boy twenty dollars and said, 'Take this money for the damage I did. I hope it won't spoil your day.' As he started to walk away, the bewildered boy called after him, 'Are you Jesus?' he stopped in his tracks. He wondered.[4]
For whom are you Jesus?

[1] Richard Gula, The Call to Holiness (New York: Paulist Press, 2003).
[2] Luke 10:38-42.
[3] John 11:5.
[4] Gula, The Call to Holiness, p. 70.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The rogue truck driver in Nice

A truck driver in France used his vehicle this past week to kill scores of people. Here are some thoughts.
  1. The incident was probably not a terror related crime. ISIS claimed that it inspired the truck driver, an immigrant from Tunisia who has lived in France most of his life. The French police, however, described the driver as a delinquent. Furthermore, the driver did not attend mosque nor give any indication that he practiced any version of Islam. Importantly, the truck driver appears not to have had a political agenda so his crime, by definition, cannot have been a terror crime.
  2. The incident has evoked bigoted, inflammatory, and ignorant responses. Probably the worst was that of Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the US House of Representatives. He proposed a loyalty test for US citizens who are Muslims and deporting those who believe in Sharia law. That proposal has multiple major flaws:
    1. A loyalty test for Muslims is patently unconstitutional, egregiously violating their first amendment rights. I'm a Christian priest but find many versions of Sharia law very ethical and congruent with ethics in other religious traditions, including Christianity. If the US deports Muslims for their beliefs, nothing will prevent the US subsequently deporting members of other religions for their beliefs.
    2. Many versions of Sharia exist. Some US citizens who are Muslims not only believe in Sharia law but also already adhere to it, using it to guide their practice of Islam in ways analogous to how the Torah guides the practice of Judaism for Orthodox Jews and others. Only the most radical versions of Sharia call for overthrow of the law of the land. Gingrich's proposal would presumably depot Muslim citizens regardless of the version of Sharia they advocate. This represents a grievous error since some Muslims who live by Sharia are outstanding, highly decorated, and patriotic members of the US armed forces who have voluntarily gone into harm's way to defend the rest of us.
    3. A nation state deporting its citizens is highly problematic under international law. No other state has any obligation to accept US citizens that the US deports. Where would we send them?
  3. Branding every mass killing a terrorist incident may be convenient but is counterproductive. Characterizing the incident as terrorism unhelpfully exacerbates terrorism related fears and misdirects future efforts to prevent similar types of crimes. I expect that probably one or more of the people killed in Nice were Muslim. A Muslim killing Muslims violates Sharia.
  4. Muslims have lived and practiced their religion in what became the US since before the American Revolution. Islam is not the problem. Analogously, nobody has proposed giving all Christians a loyalty test, deporting those who adhere to interpretations of Christianity that advocate terrorism, e.g., white supremacy, pro-slavery, or anti-abortion – all views that have given rise to Christian terror groups operating in the US.

Rather than waste time on patently foolish propositions, we will do better to promote efforts to respect the dignity and worthy of every person. Genuine respect for diversity and pursuing a chimera of ideological purity is the only viable foundation on which to build enduring communities of peace and prosperity.