going to do better v. doing better

This morning I telephoned one of our dearest friends. We speak often, yet this was an especial conversation on an especial day of commemoration after a year of great, grave loss. Our friend, one of the most honest, resilient, and courageous people we know, shared a variety of her thoughts and feelings about her grief and her growth.

Though acknowledging life’s difficulties and she’s known far more than her fair share, she’s never dwelled on her disappointments. (As one who long has wrestled with the overweening power of his inner grudge-bearing spirit, I could, perhaps should take or at least borrow this good page from her book!) Still, referring to occasions when she had received less than the support she desired and needed, she mentioned a conversation with a relative who, conceding that lack, confessed, “I’m going to do better.”

This particular encounter, for me, is a lens peering into the matrix of our universal human experience.

Who among us has not felt discontent with family members, however short-or-long-lived, however once-and-done or damnably repeated (thereby painfully validating the observation attributed to American author Edna Buchanan, “Friends are the family we choose for ourselves”)? I have.

And who among us, at one point or another, has not been that relative or friend who, in a time of another’s desire or need, could have done more, but didn’t or wouldn’t? I have.

And who among us, in her or his life’s pilgrimage, has not journeyed along the path of penitence whilst needing to take that road always less traveled of repentance? I have.

Penitence and repentance, as two heavily theologically freighted and weighted words, oft are confined to conversations about the relationship between humanity and divinity, between us and God, and used interchangeably. However, on both counts, I discern a need for the deepening of our understanding, thus, purposefully applying penitence and repentance to all of our human interactions and distinctly. On this latter point, penitence and repentance are related, but not the same.

Penitence connotes my regretting something I’ve said or done or not said or not done that has caused harm to another. Repentance (as the younger word, entering language-use roughly around the 13th century, a hundred years or so after penitence, thus, I think, remarkably, revealingly indicating a secondary, necessary enhancement of meaning) signifies my attempt to alter my behavior; no longer leaving undone things that I ought to have done and no longer doing things that I ought not to have done.[1]

By way of simplistic, yet concrete clarifying example…

I step on your foot (whether my act is careless or deliberate, your pain is the same).

You: Ouch!

Me: I’m sorry!

Later, I step on your foot.

You: Ouch!

Me: I’m sorry!

I, at still another subsequent moment, step on your foot.

You: Ouch!

Me: I’m sorry!

You: Paul, I appreciate your penitence, but what I really desire and need is your repentance.

Penitence and repentance. The difference between “I’m going to do better” and doing better.

 

Footnote:

[1] A paraphrase of the Confession of Sin, Morning Prayer: Rite I, The Book of Common Prayer, pages 41-42

behold our God!

a sermon, based on Genesis 1.1-2.4 and Matthew 28.16-20, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Trinity Sunday, June 11, 2017

A story is told that Voltaire,[1] that French Enlightenment philosopher known, among many things, for his complicated relationship with religion, once doffed his hat at the passing of a funeral procession. A friend, surprised, said, “I thought you did not believe in God.” Voltaire replied, “We acknowledge each other, though we are not on speaking terms.”[2]

We, declining to share Voltaire’s sensibilities, claim the annual grace of Trinity Sunday (if not on any other day, then surely this day!) to acknowledge and speak of the threefold nature of God: alway transcendent, beyond all things, immanent, with all things, and spiritually in all things.

The Trinity - Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina

The word “trinity” is not found in the Bible. Still, the Bible, in one sense, is our record of our religious ancestors’ encounters with what 20th century German theologian Rudolph Otto[3] termed the mysterium tremendum et fascinans; that mystery called “God” before which we, in fascinated reverence and fear, tremble. Therein, we behold their attempts to make sense of that mystery, putting into language their experiences and perceptions.

Through the lens of this understanding, let us see what our spiritual forebears have to tell us about God and about us.

Before we do, I share a word about words. Words are symbols. Whether spoken or written, they are meant to conjure up the in the minds of the speaker and hearer, the writer and reader the realities to which they point. Hence, the word “God”, as a symbol, is not God, but only the term we use in our attempt to communicate our understanding of the reality of that mysterium tremendum et fascinans. And, as God is mystery (not a riddle to be resolved, but that which, in its totality, is beyond the reach of our reason), try as we might, we never can comprehend God completely. In a word (pun intended!), we never fully “get”, grasp God. Yet, in our continued quest for understanding, we hope, we believe that what we do get is fully God. For that reason, through prayer, study, and worship, we keep trying, remaining steadfast in the quest to behold our God!

Now, back to the Bible!

The first Genesis creation story is a rhapsodic Hebrew poem testifying that God is almighty! For through the agency of “wind”, in the Hebrew, ruach, Spirit, “sweeping over the face of the waters”, God creatio ex nihilo, creates out of the nothing of “formless void and darkness.” Whenever we humans “create” we always must take things that already exist to fashion something new. God begins with nothing and, through word, “Let there be…”, comes light, sky, earth, and sea, suns and stars, flora and fauna, and humankind. And this unfolding differentiation continues unto this day. Our God always is creating and we, made in God’s image, are called to create, not destroy. Our dominion over the earth is not, is never to be domination, but rather creative caretaking, loving stewardship.

In the Gospel of Matthew, the risen Jesus declares unto his first disciples the Great Commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” As important as this mission of baptizing and teaching has been and is for the spread of Christianity, the most important word Jesus says is “therefore.” Jesus can  (is able to) command his disciples because “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Jesus claims the authority, the right to exercise power, of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the God of whom Genesis speaks as the almighty Creator.

It is this God revealed in this Jesus who, in the Spirit, is “with (us) always, to the end of the age.”

Behold our God!

 

Illustration: The Trinity, Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina (1475-1536)

Footnotes:

François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire) (1694-1778)

[1] Voltaire, the nom de plume of François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778) famous or infamous, depending on one’s point of view, for his attacks on the established church, and his advocacy of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and separation of church and state.

[2] Recorded in David Head’s He Sent Leanness: a book of prayers for the natural man (The MacMillan Company, 1959), page 36.

iottoru001p1

[3] Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), German Lutheran theologian and philosopher.

a meditation on race, repost

I am honored to serve as a member of the Diocese of Upper South Carolina’s Race and Reconciliation Committee. The initial planning and team-building retreat was held on Saturday-Sunday, August 27-28, at Camp Gravatt, Aiken, SC.

In the light and shadow of my immediate post-retreat reflections, I repost a meditation on race (here, revised more lyrically, for this is how the words willed themselves to be heard by my heart this day) that I wrote on my blog page on August 13, 2014. The sentiments herein continue to represent my sense of things.

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What is race? A thing to run? If so, how?

 

A thing to run toward as a shelter of safety

in which one’s identity

dwells secure?

A ground on which one’s integrity,

the maintenance of that identity,

is assured?

 

Or is race a thing to run through to get to the other

side to stand with “the other”

so to see one another

through the lens of our common humanity,

as in that generation ago

liberal-minded goal

of a color-blind society?

(A laudable ideal in theory;

one, however, beset by an insoluble reality:

Even when color-blind, we still see black and white. Thus, we can’t run through race

to some mythological place

of color unconsciousness.)

 

Or is race a thing from which to run, afraid of “the other”,

conscious of what we’ve been taught and learned,

and so consider,

or rather

believe about “them”, about “those people”?

 

Or is race a thing from which to run from ourselves, refusing to be identified,

vilified

by our race, in fear of rejection

and isolation

by the prejudice that prejudges without benefit of information

about us?

 

Or is race

a thing from which to run from ourselves, fearing to face

our prejudice

our prejudgments of others based

on evidence other

than what we can garner

only through our encounters personal,

our engagements with individuals?

 

Race. A thing to run? No. Rather a thing to be

as an expression of diversity…

 

A diversity – seen from a theological perspective of divine intention

and from an anthropological point of view of the creation –

paradoxically, best shown

and seen as one.

For there is but one race, whose name is holy.

And that race is wholly

human…

 

So Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

An essential element of a life of justice and compassion

is our knowing

our neighbor

and honoring

our neighbor,

who is anyone

and our being a neighbor to everyone.

 

Then why,

O why

do we, in fear, still divide

ourselves one from another,

color by color?

 

Despite our ideals greatest

and intentions best,

our history and sociology

continually trump our theology and anthropology.

 

Let us pray

and struggle still that we may find a more excellent way.

war zone?

preaching a sermon, based on Galatians 5.1, 13-25, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, June 26, 2016

thinking

(Note: On occasion, I preach what I term “a theological sermon” – though all sermons are innately theological as they speak of God and address the relationship between God and creation – in which I take a concept I find in scripture and reflect on it, proverbially “run with it”, rethink it to see whether I see something new or, at least, new for me!)

Philosophy, the age-old love and pursuit of wisdom, and Christian theology, for two millennia the philosophical engagement with doctrine, seek to interpret and make sense of human experience.

On many matters, they diverge. On one, they agree.

Within the human soul there is a war between competing, conflicting forces; for the Apostle Paul, flesh and Spirit, which “are opposed to each other.”

Paul wasn’t the first to recognize an inherent human inner conflict…

Centuries earlier, Jewish phenomenology identified within us a good nature calling us upward and an evil nature pulling us downward…

The Great Flood (1864), Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky (1817-1900), The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Some ancient rabbis, reading the story of Noah and the ark,[1] interpreted God’s lament for creating humankind leading to the decision to flood the world[2] (in effect, to start over) as a divine admission, confession, a heavenly “Oops!” for having implanted evil in the human soul…

Chariot-CharioteerIn Greek thought, Plato described the soul as a charioteer struggling to control two horses; one noble, named reason, running skyward; the other, called passion pulling the chariot to earth[3]

Recall, too, the dramatic scene of Jesus’ forty-day wilderness journey; on one  side, beleaguered, bedeviled by Satan’s incessant temptations and on the other, bolstered by the ministrations of angels.[4]

The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain (1308-1311), Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255-1319)

The idea of the soul as a playground, a war zone between good and evil is ancient and seemingly universal. As Christians, in our quest for understanding, let us turn again to Paul’s “flesh” and “Spirit.”

Flesh, from the Greek sarx, points to our mortality. As Janis Hoffman, a dear friend 95-years young and one of my favorite practical theologians, oft says, “Once you’re born, you’re done for.” Once, at birth, we “begin”, we can experience the joys and are exposed to the sorrows creation holds until we “end” in death. Even more, flesh signifies that we are susceptible to the sway of temptation and ruin, abandoning God’s way and following, as the prayers laments, “the devices and desires of our own hearts.”[5]

Spirit (whether with an upper or lower case “s”) is that life-giving, animating power within us most akin to God, who is Spirit.[6]

Reflecting on Paul’s dualism of flesh and Spirit, I see the sense of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s notion that we are not so much human beings seeking to become spiritual, but rather spiritual beings immersed, enfleshed in earthly experience.[7] Through the lens of this viewpoint, which rejects that dominant idea in Greek thought that the body is evil, I look beyond a standard interpretation of Galatians that considers flesh as bad requiring subjugation and spirit as good.

Indeed, I reinterpret Paul!

Yes, the spirit is inherently good, yet the flesh is not innately bad. Both are essential. Spirit needs flesh in order that its fruit, principally love, has a body through which it can be revealed, literally become real. Flesh needs spirit for self-control to restrain, even transcend, if only on occasion, our selfish self-interest, our impulsive passions that make vice more appealing than virtue.

Paul makes a case for war. This Paul calls for a ceasefire; that we, as spirits working not against, but through flesh, call a truce so not to be at war with ourselves. If, as Paul says, the whole law is fulfilled in loving neighbor as self, then for us to share,  spread the fruit of the Spirit, each of us first must know it, taste it, savor it ourselves. We, in the Spirit, are empowered to love ourselves, to find joy in ourselves, to be at peace and patient with ourselves, to be kind and good to ourselves, to keep faith and to be gentle with ourselves.[8]

Good idea. It’s the implementation that’s hard. At least, for me. I often am at war with myself whether it’s a clash between Paul’s flesh and spirit or my values of love and justice and my sometimes very conflicting desires to be and do otherwise. Yet I behold one saving grace: I can choose. It’s no accident that when Paul speaks of the fruit, the outer manifestation of inner Spirit, he begins with love – not merely emotion that feels kindness toward another, usually because of shared experience and perspective, but rather active unconditional goodwill that does kindness for another however different. So, even when I am most at war with myself, I still can choose to do love and to do justice for the sake of others whether I like it (or them!) or not.

 

Illustrations: The Great Flood (1864), Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky (1817-1900), The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg; The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain (1308-1311), Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255-1319)

Footnotes:

[1] Genesis 6.5-8.22

[2] Genesis 6.6-7

[3] Plato’s Phaedrus (246 B)

[4] See Matthew 4.1, 11 and Mark 1.13

[5] From the Confession of Sin, Evening Prayer: Rite I, The Book of Common Prayer, page 62

[6] John 4.24

[7] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), French paleontologist, Jesuit priest, philosopher, and mystic.

[8] A reference to Galatians 5.22-23 and our bearing the fruit of the Spirit in our lives