"The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God." -St Irenaeus of Lyon

Archive for April, 2010

Friday Forum: Does religion suck?

I get into rather quizzical debates sometimes through text-mediated conversation.  But it’s common parlance to hear something like “I’m spiritual, but not religious” in many circles.  I have been in groups that advocated using words like “follower of Jesus” or “Christ-followers” rather than “Christian” and, to some degree, some of the arguments have merits.

But it seems to be rather common practice to knock religion.  But like any theology that can be expressed in 140 characters or less, I think it’s worth unpacking the idea.

Wordnet gives religion two principal definitions: 1) a strong belief in a supernatural power or powers that control human destiny and 2) an institution to express belief in a divine power.  Even in the exemplars provided by the site indicate confusion around the word: “he lost his faith but not his morality”; “he was raised in the Baptist religion”; “a member of his own faith contradicted him.”

So we see some assumed connection between religion, control, destiny, institutions, faith, and morality.  Really, it did not take too long to arrive at these potential zones of synergy and conflict.  After all, who generally likes beliefs that control what one does or does not do?

Ironically, two important things seem to be missing: truth and grace.  Unless truth and grace get dismissed outright as “religious words” most people will talk about grace and relationship.

Interestingly, I think the aspect of relationships already occurred in the sense of institutions.  Yet most of our profound relationships do not carry a sense of being an “institution.”  Marriage is regarded by some as a gift, a mystery, a journey, and as an institution.  It is something that has been around a long time that shapes how we relate to one another.  I doubt most people within a marriage regard their marriage as an institution, preferring to regard their marriage as a relationship.

So it is with communities of faith, at least to me.  A long-standing historic bond with those who have gone before creates a rise to an organic outgrowth of relationships.  We’re good at having communities of faith, organized around so many different themes.  Even a community of doctors is a group of people who strive “in good faith” to perform a particular role in society.  It strikes me as absolutely critical to know how core beliefs mark these assorted communities.

But it seems that oftentimes “religion” gets used as a code word to go after historic practices of people of faith, assuming that the only reason why people engage in the practices is out of some terrible sense of manipulation.  Now don’t get me wrong: I’m a master of guilt, black and white thinking, and painting myself into a box.  And I think that in that sense, there is a lot in me that just needs to go.  Yet it is also compelling to me to note how engaging in corporate action with the members of my own community is often the most freeing thing that can be done as we share, often times hard-fought, core beliefs.  Without the common core, I think we would be sunk.  Without some common experience to guide us, I think we would create our own.

Often I think we would rather use morality than truth to guide our common experiences together.  We want to be “good, moral persons” so we construct our own definitions towards that end.  Then we use that construct of morality to try to beat persons into submission.  It’s really not a wonderful experience for anyone involved.  It leaves one in search of grace and truth.  But it also seems to me that grace and truth travel hand-in-hand, a journey which must always be modeled by those who come before.

I would posit that we need historically-enduring relationships to point the way towards grace and truth.  And I think creating space for shared experiences that endure through time makes the linkages possible.

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Layer upon layer

So I had planned to just let this be a throw-away post of letting you appreciate one of my absolute favorite Florence and the Machine tracks.  (I find this track is best enjoyed at great volume. Enjoy the next 3 minutes and 30 seconds.)   [As an update, I replaced the official music video with a music-only track that permitted embedding.]

But, as seemingly is my custom, I got to thinking about things.  A couple months back, I stumbled across a YouTube video where she performed this song live.  I was actually sorely disappointed when I heard it… and I wasn’t frustrated with the percussion section.  The vocals were quite shallow.

Further investigation revealed that Florence Welch constructs lyrics virtually through laying down one track after another.  When she performs live, she does not use background vocalists or a pre-recorded vocal back track so the vocals are much shallower. [NB: I still would be really interested in seeing her live so don’t let this criticism influence informing me of her tours.]

Life is constructed, layer upon layer.  Each new experience adds depth and meaning to what came before.  No experience occurs in a vacuum.  Sometimes what appears to be a mistake in one layer weaves into a feature on another.  It’s really a mess.  And it is why we need to practice something so seemingly benign as being human.

And for a wicked awesome way of dealing with layered music live, may I present Imogen Heap?


We encounter Christ

Almighty, Everlasting God, lo, I draw near to Thine only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  As sick, I come to the Physician of Life; unclean, to the Fountain of Mercy; blind, to the Light of eternal brightness; poor and needy, to the Lord of heaven and earth.  I implore Thee, therefore, out of the abundance of Thy boundless mercy, that Thou wouldst vouchsafe to heal my sickness, to wash my defileness, to enlighten my blindness, to enrich my poverty, and to clothe my nakedness; that I may receive the King of kings and Lord of lords, with such reverence and humility, such contrition and devotion, such purity and faith, such purpose and intention as is expedient for the health of my soul.

-A prayer from St Ambrose


Beginning to See Poverty

One challenge in trying to serve people who experience significant material lack is trying to identify those people experiencing significant material lack.  We tend to be proud people, hiding our wounds and struggles from those around us.  Instead we often rely on proxy measures of income estimation and geographical clues to figure out if people live in poverty.  Frequently the discussion of poverty involves considering people “in Africa” and those who “live on less than one dollar a day.”  Unless we happen to be in Africa, these poor are far removed from our direct sphere of influence, making it much easier to think about responding to poverty as a far-away problem. Learning how to see poverty requires work.

No one particularly likes to see poverty, particularly those people who live within the situation.  To be materially poor is quite the blow to one’s pride; people sometimes go to great lengths to hide.  On one level, poverty carries a wholly created construct like the concept of a poverty line; but on another level, hearing stories of people fighting courageous fights simply to survive in our materially-driven world can be inspiring and heart-wrenching all at the same time.

To me, looking for poverty seems to carry the questions of “Why do you care? Why do you want to see poverty?”  Some act as a sense of mandate, as a requirement of their humanity, as a chance to guide the less fortunate, as an opportunity to enter into a shared experience with the humanity of another.  But, for the most part, I would hazard a guess that defining poverty remains the domain of the elite, often as a way to assuage the conscience that one is doing all one can.

Yet we so often fail in our journey to come alongside of the materially poor in a way that honors their humanity.  I recently read an article about the participation of low-income students at elite UK universities (where interestingly, the measure of poverty comes from geographical considerations) where I could hear echoes of a familiar argument.  The argument asserts that by making conscious effort to identify low-income students to participate in elite universities, invariably an academically “deserving” student will see his or her seat in an incoming class go to a “charitable case.”  The dichotomy gets to me as the poor are neither academically able nor deserving of an education.

Sometimes the label can be helpful, but often we employ the label to advance our own agenda.  Consider Gustavo Esteva’s thoughts about living in an underdeveloped country:

To become underdeveloped is very undignified and humiliating. You can no longer trust your nose: you need to trust the noses of the experts that will guide you to develop. You can no longer dream your dreams; they are already dreamt: to be like them, like the developed, to adopt their dreams as your own. But development also comes with fascination. You want to have what they have and you begin to want what they want. I wanted development for myself, for my family, for my country…

It is very hard to come alongside of the experience of another person, entering into a fully mutual and equitable relationship.  As human beings, we do not seem to be very good at creating fully mutual and equitable relationships.  Yet, looking at the world around us, seeing it as it is, and struggling with the tensions of how we personally ought to respond invites us to practice what it means that we ourselves are human.

And unfortunately, it can be much easier to simply keep our eyes closed.


To educate and instruct

One thing that often surprises me is that I love teaching.  But loving teaching is not the same as loving hearing myself talk.  Although I also like hearing myself talk a good portion of the time.

Teaching increasingly presents itself as a treasure hunt to me, where my principle goal is to find the gifts, talents, strengths and abilities of the students in front of me while simultaneously challenging them to consider new forms of expression for themselves as human beings.  Teaching invites me towards an embrace of the parts of another human being that truly mark them as individuals.  The more individuals in the room, the greater the chaos invited when offering true education.  Education should be flexible, with room to breathe and grow.  Ideally we learn how to breathe as and grow into ourselves through education.

Yet so much of the time, we really do not educate people at all.  We would rather instruct.  We would rather talk at them and give them skills that we assume that they need if they are going to be successful at the things we want them to do after we have trained them.  I do not mind training so much when working with people clearly aligned with the professional purposes of the training.  It is one thing to have someone approach you and say “I want to hit longer, straighter golf shots” and teach them how to do develop that particular skill.  But it is another to assume that all students must be able to recite (the erroneous version of) Newton’s second law where force equals mass times acceleration.  [For those too embarrassed to ask, Newton postulated that the net force acting on an object produces the equivalent time rate of change in an object’s momentum.  The dude all but invented calculus to explain what he was seeing in the world around him but I strongly suspect that he had a lot of help from his friends… and his foes.]

Skills have their place to challenge students to grow.  But it really bothers me when we focus all of our schooling processes on assessments that have little to do with assessing the skills we think students ought to have.

Truly educating people is really hard hard work.  It takes a lot of planning and foresight to figure out how to journey with one’s students.  I daresay that educating is visionary work where you only see the process rather than significant outcomes.  You look for landmarks along the way to point people towards various paths.  But I think often times, being an educator is staring at any number of conflicting signals.


On the Paralytic

Today’s Gospel reading recounts the man who waited at the pool for 38 years to be healed of his physical infirmity.  I hear strong echoes of the story of the poor in this story of this sick man.

Again, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom has a fantastic homily on this Gospel account.  Many thanks to the Preachers Institute for making it available.

In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

How tragic today’s story of the life of Christ is. A man had been paralysed for years. He had lain at a short distance from healing, but he himself had no strength to merge into the waters of ablution. And no one – no one in the course of all these years – had had compassion on him.

The ones rushed to be the first in order to be healed. Others who were attached to them by love, by friendship, helped them to be healed. But no one cast a glance at this man, who for years had longed for healing and was not in himself able to find strength to become whole.

If only one person had been there, if only one heart had responded with compassion, this man might have been whole years and years earlier. As no one, not one person, had compassion on him, all that was left to him – and I say all that was left to him with a sense of horror – was the direct intervention of God.

We are surrounded by people who are in need. It is not only people who are physically paralysed who need help.

There are so many people who are paralysed in themselves, and need to meet someone who would help them.

Paralysed in themselves are those who are terrified of life, because life has been an object of terror for them since they were born: insensitive parents, heartless, brutal surroundings. How many are those who hoped, when they were still small, that there would be something for them in life. But no. There wasn’t. There was no compassion. There was no friendliness. There was nothing. And when they tried to receive comfort and support, they did not receive it. Whenever they thought they could do something they were told, ‘Don’t try. Don’t you understand that you are incapable of this?’ And they felt lower and lower.

How many were unable to fulfill their lives because they were physically ill, and not sufficiently strong… But did they find someone to give them a supporting hand? Did they find anyone who felt so deeply for them and about them that they went out of their way to help? And how many those who are terrified of life, lived in circumstances of fear, of violence, of brutality… But all this could not have taken them if there had been someone who have stood by them and not abandoned them.

So we are surrounded, all of us, by people who are in the situation of this paralytic man. If we think of ourselves we will see that many of us are paralysed, incapable of fulfilling all their aspirations; incapable of being what they longed for, incapable of serving others the way their heart speaks; incapable of doing anything they longed for because fear, brokenness has come into them.

And all of us, all of us were responsible for each of them. We are responsible, mutually, for one another; because when we look right and left at the people who stand by us, what do we know about them? Do we know how broken they are? How much pain there is in their hearts? How much agony there has been in their lives? How many broken hopes, how much fear and rejection and contempt that has made them contemptuous of themselves and unable even to respect themselves – not to speak of having the courage of making a move towards wholeness, that wholeness of which the Gospel speaks in this passage and in so many other places?

Let us reflect on this. Let us look at each other and ask ourselves, ‘How much frailty is there in him or her? How much pain has accumulated in his or her heart? How much fear of life – but life expressed by my neighbour, the people whom I should be able to count for life – has come in to my existence?

Let us look at one another with understanding, with attention. Christ is there. He can heal; yes. But we will be answerable for each other, because there are so many ways in which we should be the eyes of Christ who sees the needs, the ears of Christ who hears the cry, the hands of Christ who supports and heals or makes it possible for the person to be healed.

Let us look at this parable of the paralytic with new eyes; not thinking of this poor man two thousand years ago who was so lucky that Christ happened to be near him and in the end did what every neighbour should have done. Let us look at each other and have compassion, active compassion; insight; love if we can.

And then this parable will not have been spoken or this event will not have been related to us in vain. Amen.


Spiritually resisting the poor

Serving the poor carries a significant political backlash, particularly as Christians assert that Christ commands that we care for the poor.  Almost invariably, the discussion of Judas gets cited.  Admittedly, I am starting to see Judas in a different light, particularly as I see more of myself in his character.

The text is well-known: A sinful woman pours rich ointment over Christ’s feet, wiping His feet with her hair.  Judas takes objection asserting that the ointment could have been sold and the monies given to the poor.  Christ then replies, “Leave her alone.  She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.  You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have Me.” (from the Gospel of St John, the 12th chapter)

The interesting thing to me is that this verse gets quoted as a way of resisting serving the poor.  But I have to wonder if Christians would have the same response if Judas proposed that the money go to the hospital or to the schools or to the nursery.  Is it not true that we will always have the sick, the young, and the powerless with us?

I would like to make a connection between the poor and the sick because we tend to acknowledge the sick in our midst.  We will go to great lengths to try to alleviate the human suffering of a loved one we know who is sick.  We help our sick loved ones personally, we rejoice when people respond to the professional call of tending to the sick, and we value tending to the sick, even at some sense of a macro-scale.  (Please remember the ground rules for this discussion, especially rule 2: recognize that people will have variant political perspectives.)  We find it to be a great tragedy when a loved one suffers from chronic, recurrent illnesses.

Yet we seem to accept chronic and recurrent poverty as normal.  And I do think that just as we have chronic, recurrent illnesses, we have chronic, recurrent poor persons.

What function might the physically sick serve?  Well, if we did not have the physically sick, how could we make sense of this description of Christ’s purposes from Luke 5: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”  We ascribe the title “Great Physician” to Christ as a way of honoring this purpose.  The physically sick serve to remind us all of our spiritual illness.  Again, from Christ, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

Similarly, I think we can draw the analogy to the materially poor.  “Those who are rich have no need of a benefactor, but those who are poor.”  If Christ is indeed our Great Benefactor, then the material poor serve to remind us all of our spiritual poverty.  Incidentally, this observation brings us back to the question “Who are the poor?” from last week.

Personally, I struggle to see how God can desire permanent sickness in anyone.  The fact that prayer heals certain people without healing others leads many to doubt their faith because we naturally think that prayer should heal everyone of their physical infirmities.  Yet, we accept material poverty as though God ordered some to have more than others.  I accept situational poverty as much as I accept situational illness.  I could very easily suffer physical or financial calamity tomorrow; I have no idea what tomorrow holds.  I might have a mild cold or a squeezed bank account.  Or I might run into a rather debilitating flu or lose my job.  Certain physical and financial strains happen in the course of living a human life.

But I struggle also to see how God can desire permanent material lack for any of His children.  I am speaking of true material lack that limits life just as much as a devastating illness limits life.  I am not advocating a “prosperity gospel” but rather I think there is a real challenge to trust prayer to work within the situation.  Moreover, in the case of material lack, it seems that we are invited beyond prayer if we have the means.

“If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” From the Epistle of St James

I think we would rather see doctors as the answer to sick and social workers as the answer to the poor.  It is much easier to remain distant than it is to get involved.  We just may find ourselves in an encounter with Christ.