Saturday, March 29, 2008

Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!

From the Byzantine Liturgy, the anthem for Easter:

"Christ is risen from the dead, by death he conquered death and to those in the graves he granted life."

From the Roman Liturgy, the responsory for the Easter Octave:

"This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad, alleluia"

We are a people of Easter joy. Death has been conquered, our greatest fear removed, the Lord has done this marvel in our eyes for us, now, today! We can and should walk in bold courage under the banner of our baptism to forge God's reign of justice and peace now. In our AIHM Order and ICCC jurisdiction I rejoice that we celebrate God's life and triumph with a vision of Church where the sacraments are more about inclusion than exclusion, where community and growth in grace are more important than power and control. A Church where love and forgiveness calls out to moral change and conversion and commitment rather than fear. and condemnation.

May we all in our movement take strength in this Easter joy to reach out with greater enthusiasm to all those in spiritual need and announce that God grants us new life NOW and THIS is the day the Lord has made.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Holy Week: We are Sinners AND we are Saved

Below is part of a sermon from the Calvin Christian Reformed Church at: It is a reflection on Psalm 51, one of Holy Father Augustine's favorite psalms. The author is commenting on responsibility and sinfulness. It is a good reflection on our condition as we enter the days of remembering the loving cost of our redemption and the tremendous Grace God has ready to pour upon us.

A holy and special Triduum to all!

The art of self-deception is one we each know well, though few would care to admit that. In fact, the better you are at self-deception, the less you are aware of it. First we deceive ourselves and then we further deceive ourselves that we have not, after all, deceived ourselves. Mind and memory can play such fanciful tricks on us, resulting in sometimes silly consequences and sometimes dire ones.

On the silly side is something that happened to Ronald Reagan. During a 1980 campaign stop Reagan, with trembling lips and obvious conviction, told a World War II story about a pilot and his bombardier. Their plane had been hit but while the pilot could have ejected, the bombardier was too wounded, and his ejection seat too damaged, to get out of the spiraling plane. So the pilot reached over, took the man's hand and said, "Never mind, son, we'll ride it down together." It was a very moving story, until one reporter realized that if both men had died in the crash, there would have been no one to report these final words. When this was pointed out to Reagan, he was serenely unmoved.

On the more dire side of the ledger is the defense which Nazi Adolf Eichmann offered at Nuremberg. Eichmann had been in charge of the massive transportation system which efficiently moved Europe's Jews from one destination to another, ultimately winding most of them up at one of the Third Reich's many death camps. But Eichmann claimed his innocence in it all, saying that he was only in charge of transport and had no knowledge of where the Jews were going or what might happen to them once they got there.

But these examples have to do with forgetfulness about specific incidents. The larger self-deception in which we are involved has to do with issues of who we are. Most people are loathe to admit that they are just generally bent toward the bad, inclined to do it wrong. So when the Christian tradition declares to any and all, "You are a sinner," most people these days reply, "What did I do?" If sin exists at all, it is merely episodic, an occasional (and inexplicable) "lapse" from our better nature, which is at bottom "pretty good."

How foreign is the notion articulated by theologian Emil Brunner. Brunner once noted that we can, in principle, avoid any particular sin. And we often do. Few if any people give in to every dark impulse. The average person, whether or not he is particularly religious, resists many temptations that come his way on the average day. He does not slip the Snickers bar into his coat instead of paying for it, does not exceed the speed limit, does not shove the person ahead of him in line for the subway, does not grab and grope at the co-worker whose sexy dress just flat out is turning him on that day.

In principle the sinner can, and often does, avoid any particular sin, Brunner noted. But what we cannot do is avoid every sin. We cannot not be sinners. We cannot claim that we have never done it wrong. We cannot promise that we will never do another wrong thing, speak another cross word, or think another angry thought in the future. Even if the alcoholic promises never to take another drink or the adulterer vows never again to wake up in the wrong bed--and even if they keep those promises--what they cannot promise is that in addition to staying sober or chaste they will also remain just overall sinless.

Christians are often accused of being rather neurotic when it comes to sin. We leap from one wrong deed to the catastrophic conclusion that we are just generally depraved. Like the poet of Psalm 51 we claim that we've been sinful from the moment sperm met egg in our conception. And much of our world sees that and cries out, "Good grief! Aren't you taking this guilt trip just a little bit far!?" We prefer to trace the reason for any given sin not clear back to some defect with which we were born but to more immediate surroundings.

One of the world's first autobiographies was Saint Augustine's Confessions. A hallmark of that work is Augustine's willingness to confess his own sins and the perversity of heart which inclined him to commit them in the first place. Today the genre of spiritual autobiography is once again very popular, but with a difference: today people are more interested in confessing the sins of others. The way a certain author turned out was Mom and Dad's fault, or because of a non-affectionate spouse, or because the company never really gave him his due and so squashed his sense of self-worth. In a recent interview Hillary Clinton suggested that some of her husband's philandering could maybe get traced back to an alcoholic step-father.

But if your problems can get traced back to someone else, then not only have you rather nicely shifted the blame but you have also suggested a solution: you simply have to get some therapy to make peace with father, to re-build the self-esteem a careless lover stole from you, to feel better about yourself by garnering the goodies which you never got from your boss. Now I want to be very clear that I both know and value the power and worth of good therapy. But if it becomes a substitute for confession or a way to get at the darker truths of others instead of the darker recesses of our own hearts, then we have crossed a theological line which ought properly to give us pause. We are not forever and only victims.

It is in this sense that Psalm 51 can serve as a bracing tonic. Here is a showcase display window of the elements that go into a well-rounded doctrine of sin. Two elements take center stage: one is the fact that it is the psalmist himself who is the problem, and the other is the notion that not only is God our judge, he's right when he renders a harsh verdict. We properly stand before God, and God properly stands over against the shape of our lives.

The psalmist is unstinting in saying, "I am the one in need of repair! It's my heart that needs fixing. No, it needs replacing." So the psalmist begs for a new creation, for a radical re-wiring on the inside. There is in Psalm 51 virtually no hint of outward circumstances that contributed to this sin. The psalmist claims that he has been sinful since conception but he does not blame his mother or father for that, it's just the way things are. Nor does he say that since he came into the world already bent, he's just a victim of nature.

Instead he says that because he came into the world already corrupt, that is all the more reason to beg for new creation. Because he is willing to fess up in this psalm he feels the sting of God's judgment, the crushing of his bones. He really feels bad. In fact, he's downright miserable. He is very much, to borrow a contemporary phrase, "down on himself." It is unrelenting.

Nevertheless, Psalm 51 is not finally bleak. Therein lies the mystery of faith. In the alchemy of grace words that are darker than dark lead to a brightness that cannot be quelled. The psalm begins drenched with grace. The first verse could be translated literally as, "Grace me in your grace, O God!" In the original Hebrew the first line is just three words, two of which drip with divine mercy. (A really literal rendering would be something like, "Grace, God, Grace!") The last of those three words is a term I can never get enough of: the Hebrew word chesed. It's the Old Testament's favorite way of characterizing God. It is a word so redolent of good stuff, so fragrant of fresh starts, so freighted with joy, that no one has ever come up with an adequate translation. "Unfailing love," "lovingkindness," "abiding mercy" are a few of the attempts.

But what chesed is finally all about is the ineffable desire God has to forgive. Grace is the oxygen of heaven--there's always more of it than there is of sin. Psalm 51 banks on this hyper-abundant grace, but not cheaply. God is not some ineffectual figure who is too much of a wimp to generate any anger. Sometimes we see this: perhaps a father is just too tender-hearted (or maybe just too much of a moral limp noodle) ever to get very upset. So a smart-aleck son may recklessly smash up the car only to have his father say, "That's OK. We'll get it fixed and forget about it." To such a father the flippant son may reply, "Yeah, I figured you'd say that! That's why I wasn't terribly careful in the first place!" Sometimes a person's easy forgiveness becomes something others bank on in self-serving ways.

But not here. The fierce rightness of God's judgment, the utter dread with which the psalmist faces the possibility of being cast out of the light, make it clear that God's penchant for grace is not being invoked in a manipulative way. But that is because a genuine awareness of God's grace emerges only from a knowledge of sin's seriousness. Here is a central wonder of the faith: the more soberly serious we are about sin and the reality of God's judgment, the more joyfully exuberant we are about the shining splendor of grace and the way it drenches our lives with monsoons of forgiveness. We stand constantly under Jesus' cross as the most stunning reminder of just how fierce God's judgment on sin is. And yet we find joy emerging from the darkness, even because of the darkness!

Saturday, March 8, 2008

International Day of Women

Today we celebrate and highlight the role of women in our world and the real need to continue to defend their rights in many places in our societies and cultures. From an Augustinian point of view, I thought it good and worthy to clarify or set aside certain misconceptions about St. Augustine as a misogynist.

Our Holy Father Augustine lived in a time and culture that still saw women as property of their fathers or husbands, and saw marriage as simply a means to a societal ends. And from a spiritual point, often celibacy was seen as the only real good in the Christian state, and marriage as a necessary evil.

Augustine advances the dignity of women in his time in two ways. First, he advances the sacramental notion of marriage as a spiritual good, and second he advances the notion of the equality of men and women in the marital state.

Augustine said in The City of God (XIV, 22) that: "increasing, multiplying, and filling the earth in accordance with the blessing of God is a gift of marriage, which God instituted from the very beginning, prior to sin." Thus marriage is a sacred blessing instituted by God. He further warns those in the celibate state not to regard marriage as evil (De sancta virg. 12,12).

St. Augustine also defended the beauty and divine design of our sexes and gender particularly the feminine when he writes, "Risen bodies will be freed of defects, but their nature will be preserved. Female sexuality, however, is not a defect but belongs to nature." (De vic.Dei XXii,17)
Finally, Augustine holds accountable for fidelity, equally, both men and women, "both partners observe mutual fidelity and respect the sacramental union." (De sancta virg. 12,12)

Thus, on this Day of Women, let us hear Augustine's preaching of the Truth of our Faith that the dignity of men and women are untied and equal. If the dignity of one is wounded, then the dignity of both are wounded. In prayer and good works seeking truth and justice let us root out of ourselves attitudes of sexism and let us work to help women in other countries and cultures find their rightful voice and rightful place of dignity at the side of men, not at their feet.

Below are some links for action and thought for this important day: