Thursday, May 30, 2013

Why the Holy Trinity?

Some year ago my wife and I were visiting her sister in rural North Carolina. My sister-in-law invited us to attend a Sunday night prayer meeting at the local Southern Baptist church she attended. I found this congregation very friendly and welcoming. Pastor Bobby (I think that's what his name was), dressed in a snazzy double-breasted suit and carrying a Bible the size of Rhode Island, had decided to forgo his sermon that evening and, instead, held a Q & A night. A nine-year-old boy in the congregation asked, "Are Jehovah's Witnesses really Christians?"
Pastor Bobby answered, "Well, technically, no. The reason I say this is because the Jehovah's Witnesses don't believe in the Holy Trinity."
"But why do we have to believe in the Trinity?" the boy asked.
Pastor Bobby smiled. Then he looked down from the pulpit straight at me and said, "Let's let our Lutheran brother answer that one!"
Thanks, Bobby, I thought. Sure. Put the visitor on the spot. But I stood up and addressed the congregation, knowing I'd better have a pretty good answer for this one. Truth be told, I hadn't really pondered this question too much. I've always just swallowed the Church's teaching. So on this night I was preaching as much to myself as to the nine-year-old Baptist boy and the congregation which surrounded him.
Why must we believe in the Trinity? First, let me deal with the history of the question. The Trinity became dogma--literally a decree or command--after the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E. The Roman emperor Constantine convened the Council to deal with the theological dispute about the nature of Christ. Was this a political move? Sure. Old Constantine wanted all his subjects to be on the same page. In the Middle Ages, one would confess the Trinity simply because you'd be burned at the stake as a heretic if you didn't. All that having been said, I still believe that those early Church Fathers at Nicaea got it right when they attempted to define humankind's experience of God.
So what goes through your head when you hear the word "God?" An invisible old man in the clouds? I hope not. To me, in spite of the gorgeous depictions of the Father God in centuries of Christian art (See the Francisco Albani painting I used above), I explain God as creation and existence. God is the very fact and state of all being. For an analogy, I go back to the appearance of God to Moses in Exodus chapter 3. Moses encounters a bush which is burning but not consumed--a living presence giving off the source of life, light and warmth, but never decaying or ending. When Moses asks for the name of God, he is told that name is "I AM." God IS. And all that is is in and of God.
But experiencing God as Creative Existence is impersonal, cold and frightening. We must also experience that love is present in this experience, and that the joy of relationship exists, too. As Christians, we experience this divine love reflected in the sacrificial love of Jesus on the cross. Here we see what makes our being worthwhile, the willingness to deny personal survival for love of others. We see the depths of our depravity in the cruelty of the cross, but in Christ's willingness to suffer it we see the holiness of love. Out of death we see real, meaningful life.
Yet even this experience is not enough unless we also contemplate the Spirit of God. In both Biblical Hebrew and Greek, the word "spirit" can also mean "breath" and "wind." In Genesis 2:7 God breathes into man's nostrils the breath of life, and the man becomes alive. Both breath and wind are actions. When they cease to do, they cease to be. God's activity and God's life are what we experience when we experience God as Spirit. When we contemplate God as Spirit, we acknowledge that this Spirit is present in us. Indeed, it is present in all life. So the Spirit not only connects us with God, but with each other and the whole universe. Should I sin against my brother, I have sinned against God and against myself, for we are all connected in one Spirit.
If I neglect the Spirit of God, I can still find myself alone in the garden with my loving Jesus, but my focus will be on my own comfort and individual salvation. I will be useless to the world around me.
If I take Jesus out of the equation, I can still be awed by the Creator God and connected to Creation; however, I will not know the sacrificial love of God. I will never give of myself. Life will be cold and empty without the image of both love and suffering. If I remove Christ's compassion, forgiveness, empathy, and eternal life from  my conception of God, with what can I replace them?
And even if I focus on Christ's great love and the interconnectedness of all living things, I still have to keep the awesomeness of Creation in mind. Without reflection on the mystery of the great I AM, I run the risk of becoming too involved with my own efforts and losing all perspective.
The beauty of Trinitarian thought is that one may encounter God through any of the three experiences. We can know God in the beauty of creation, we can know God in the sacrificial love of Christ and others, and we can know God through divine actions which make our own existence meaningful. We can enter through any of the three doors, and be led to experience the other two.
Obviously, all of the above is woefully inadequate to describe the mystery of God. I do hope, however, that it gives you something to ponder and to discuss. May the awesomeness of creation, the divine and eternal compassion and mercy of the cross, and animating gust of all life be with you all!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Mourning on Memorial Day

(Yes, I know that this Sunday--May 26--is the Feast of the Holy Trinity, and I just might try to post some thoughts on this doctrine at a later date. But please indulge me as I write on a subject which has been very much on my mind.)

Memorial Day weekend is coming up, and I'm still thinking of Cassie.

You see, there are all kinds of deaths that are suffered for the sake of our country by those who put on her uniform.

The young soldier whom I'll call "Cassie" (not her real name) rang the doorbell at Faith Lutheran Church several months ago. She needed some help. I felt sorry for her as she was obviously ashamed and embarrassed by her circumstances. I mean, no one wants to ask for charity, do they?

She was a small, waif-like blond girl. She showed me her military ID card, and explained that she was a single mother on leave to visit her young child and her mother. She was stationed at a major military base several hundred miles away in another state. She was broke and needed gas money to get back to base before being AWOL.

Now, lots of folks come by the church with hard luck stories. It is usually not our policy to hand out cold cash. But Cassie was so obviously nervous and seemed so fragile and so vulnerable. Besides, her Army ID looked pretty genuine to me, so I decided to err on the side of Jesus' injunction:

"Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again." (Luke 6: 30)

I invited Cassie to my office where I could access some of the petty cash from my discretionary fund. I made sure that I stopped at my administrator's office first--not because I needed to talk to her, but because I wanted to reassure this very nervous young soldier that she was not alone in the building with a strange man. I left my office door wide open, and made certain never to stand too near Cassie or get between her and the open door.

In an effort to ease her nerves, I told Cassie that my nephew happened to be on active duty at the same installation where she was stationed. Then I showed her the picture of my daughter which I keep over my desk. My daughter, Sandra, was recently honorably discharged from the Army, and I'm very proud to show a picture of her taken when she was on deployment in the Middle East.

"She's very pretty," Cassie said.

"Thank you," I replied. "I think she looks just like her mother." But then I recalled what Sandra had told me about the high level of sexual harassment endured by women in the military. Something was telling me that this girl's nervousness was not just about the embarrassment of having to ask a stranger for a handout.

"I hope you're taking care of yourself in the Army," I said. "My daughter says there's a lot of victimization of women in the military."

"Thank you for your concern, Sir," she said, "but it's already happened to me."

I did not pursue the subject. I gave Cassie what money I could spare from the constantly depleted fund, said a prayer for her safety, and sent her on her way. I keep hoping that she made it back to base okay.

But I feel for this young person. In a slow job market, this single mom offered four years of her life to defend her country. She did so in good faith. She knew going in that there would be some danger involved, but I doubt she thought it would come from her own brothers-in-arms.

Recently, I saw on PBS the documentary The Invisible War. This film tells the story of the thousands of young women--and men--who have been sexually victimized while serving in our armed forces. Watching it is a painful experience. One feels pity for the victims and anger at both the perpetrators and the inability of the Department of Defense to effectively deal with this epidemic. Last year an estimated 85,000 veterans requested treatment from the VA for illnesses and injuries related to Military Sexual Trauma. 40% of those victims were men.

So on this Memorial Day, I will mourn not only for those who gave their lives in defense of our nation, but for those who have died a little each day--having lost faith, self-respect, and dignity. These deaths are no more profound than those who gave their lives on the battlefield. For those who suffered these deaths were also dedicated to our country. I pray that we do not forget them.

If you are concerned about this issue, I encourage you to learn more and click on The Invisible War link. There are suggestion about how you can get involved. In the meantime, I offer this Memorial Day prayer:

Almighty God, as your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, suffered humiliation and pain, we ask you to bind the wounds of our young men and women whose hearts have been torn apart by their service in the military. As we thank them for their service, let us not forget their sacrifice. Heal them, comfort them, restore them, O God of All Healing. Pour into our hearts your mercy, your compassion, and your justice, that we may put right the wrongs which have been done. Make us a nation worthy of the sacrifice which our young warriors have made. We ask this through the precious blood of your Son, our Lord. Amen.

Thanks for reading, my friends. A blessed Memorial Day to you all.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Scratching My Head at Pentecost

Happy Pentecost, everyone!

Hallmark doesn't make a card for this important Christian holy day, and that's a crying shame if you ask me. I love Pentecost. It's the celebration of the Holy Spirit of God, and it marks the day when twelve scared and utterly confused followers of Jesus suddenly came alive and began to proclaim the incarnate love and everlasting life and joy they found through the person of Jesus. It is, in essence, the birthday of Christianity.

For my folks at little Faith Lutheran in Philadelphia it's also the day when we celebrate the rite of Confirmation--the ritual in which young teens, now schooled in the Bible and the doctrines of the Church, affirm the promises made at their infant baptisms and profess themselves to be adult members of the Christian community.

And for a lot of them it will mean "graduation from church."

Sometimes I just scratch my head and wonder why I try to teach something as mysterious and multi-layered as the Christian faith to kids who would rather be beaten with a club than sit through a weekly lesson in theology. But it's a tradition, and year after year we go through it.

To be honest, I don't really remember much about my own Confirmation except that my fellow confirmands somehow got out of order in our line-up at the communion rail. Our pastor got confused, and I had to whisper to him frantically that he had forgotten to lay hands on me and say the prayer  for the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Once I had been prayed over, a church council member presented me with a small New Testament and a box of offering envelopes. I guess that made me an adult in the faith.

So I wonder about the kids I'll confirm this year. Do their parents--many of whom have shown no inclination for religious observance themselves--have them make their Confirmation just because it's "the right thing to do?" Is this more superstition than true religion?

Being confirmed certainly won't ward off evil. Those spirit-filled Christians on that first Pentecost found that out soon enough. All of them faced jail time, and all but one of the twelve died violent deaths for proclaiming faith in Jesus Christ.

What will happen when I lay hands on the heads of these young people and pray for the outpouring of God's spirit? I doubt that the church will be filled with the sound of a rushing wind. No tongues of fire will appear over their heads. They will not begin to preach in strange languages. They might just say, "Thanks, Pastor. I'll see you at my wedding!" as they head for the nearest exit.

But maybe not. I mean, even those first Christians, the ones who lived and ate and prayed with Jesus, the ones who saw Jesus resurrected, still didn't get it at first. Spiritual faith takes time to develop. I can't give my students that faith. I can only give them information. But, as Luther teaches, the Holy Spirit calls us through the gospel. And the Spirit's work--every day, according to Luther--forgives our sins, enlightens us with gifts, calls us into togetherness, and makes us holy. We aren't even aware of it. The older I get, the more I suspect that spirituality has less to do with knowledge or experience and more to do with time and practice.

If the rest of us can create an environment within the church which is loving and open enough, maybe these young people will stick around long enough to get the hang of this Christian thing. So I'll keep believing, and I'll keep teaching, and I'll keep hoping that somehow something will register in the minds of these youths that will make a difference in their lives some time down the road. Who knows..?

As for me, the sacred stories, the rituals, the songs, just get more beautiful the older I get. The Holy Spirit is more real to me now than in my youth, and she keeps whispering new ideas in my ears. I can't wait to find out what she has in store for me in the future.

Thanks for reading, my friends. Amen. Come, Holy Spirit.


Thursday, May 9, 2013

Oneness (Reflections on Easter Seven)

"I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me." (John 17:20-21)

The above is from what Bible scholars call Jesus' "High Priestly Prayer" which makes up the seventeenth chapter of the Gospel of John and is part of this Sunday's assigned reading in the Revised Common Lectionary. Jesus, while having his last supper with his disciples before his crucifixion, prays that they might have unity. He's not just praying for a general sense of agreement among them; rather, he's asking that they achieve some kind of spiritual oneness with each other, with him, and with the God of all Creation. This harmony will have a transformational effect on those with whom the disciples come in contact. People will actually experience the presence of Christ and harmony with the Creator Father through the harmony of Jesus' followers.

That's a pretty tall order, if you ask me. Jesus' prayer is putting us all in tension with one of our greatest desires: to be seen as individuals. I mean, don't we all want to be distinguished in some way? Aren't we all just a bunch of little kids screaming, "Look at me?!"

But that's the paradox: at the heart of things, we're all really the same. We're all made from the same molecules and atoms--the very dust of the earth is our essence. We all need food and water and air. We all are driven by the same passions for love, meaning, and security. And yet, we're all uniquely loved by God and blessed with individual gifts.

Theology sucks sometimes, doesn't it? How can we ever intelligently contemplate the nature of God, the mystery of the Trinity, when we don't even understand the paradox of our own existence?

I think this week's lessons are trying to teach us that the path to spiritual peace lies in seeking our oneness rather than reveling in our "ME-ness." Look at the First Lesson from Acts 16. The jailer, the minion of the oppressive government which is imprisoning Paul and Silas, becomes an object of our compassion. This guy has a duty and loyalty to his cause, just as do Paul and Silas. He's willing to give his life just as they are. He has a family he loves and cares about--just like everybody else. The imprisoned Christians in his charge recognize his common humanity and turn an "enemy" into a brother.

For my money, the greatest religious thinkers have been those who have emphasized the similarities, the oneness, of all religious traditions rather than the cultural differences. Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Karen Armstrong are all influential because they recognize that at our very core we are all one.

The best guide for ecumenical understanding of our oneness was taught to me by one of my theology professors, J. Paul Rajashekar. Now, I'm sure my paraphrase of Dr. Rajashekar's insights might be somewhat inaccurate, but you'll get the general idea (And, if you're reading this, Paul, my apologies in advance for any misconstruction of your wise thoughts).

First, people interacted in a tribal sense through a theology of exclusion. This theology said, "I know what I believe. I don't know what YOU believe, but I'm pretty sure it's different from what I believe so you must be wrong. I must, therefore, convert you to my way of thinking. Failing that, I must kill you and take your land."

This theology led to a lot of violence and bloodshed. So we got smarter and came up with a theology of toleration (not to be confused with actual tolerance). This theology said, "I know what I believe. I don't know what YOU believe, but I'm pretty sure it's different from what I believe so you must be wrong. BUT, I don't see any reason why we can't agree to disagree and live peacefully side-by-side. As long as your son doesn't marry my daughter, we'll get on just swell (Besides, some day you'll die and go to Hell anyway!)."

But Jesus urges us towards the path of oneness. Rajashekar refers to a theology of hospitality. This theology says, "I know what I believe, but I DON'T know what you believe. Therefore, I cannot assume that it's different from my own belief system. If we can get our vocabularies worked out, we might discover that we have more in common than we originally thought. We will emphasize our oneness, and learn to live in harmony with each other and with the Holy Spirit of God which dwells in each of us."

It's about putting our egos and our desire for ME-ness aside. Flying in the face of modern self-help thought, Jesus never prays that we will have self esteem. He is praying for oneness. It's a prayer both mystical and practical. Sometimes I wonder if, instead of working out the world's differences with soldiers and diplomats, we should send religious people who are willing to talk the theology of hospitality to those whom we perceive as being so different from ourselves.

It couldn't hurt.

Have a blessed week, my friends.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Blessed Failure (Reflections on Easter Six)

Like everyone else on this planet, I've screwed up a few times in my life.

My brief and unspectacular career in the theatre once involved a stint on the Theatre Arts faculty of a small west coast college. This was really a great job, and I truly enjoyed teaching acting and voice classes and directing plays. I even had the opportunity to perform with the college's professional resident theatre company. For a young man fresh out of grad school, this was a great gig to have. Unfortunately, I was also a very stupid young man, and I couldn't resist an urge to criticize the department chairperson at every chance that came my way.

Needless to say, I was quickly fired from this position.

In retrospect, getting canned from that safe college job was the best thing that ever happened to me. After I choked down my panic, I was forced to go out into the world and find a way to pay the rent and other bills. I was also forced to find different venues in which to do my art and other students to teach. My life experiences became so much richer as a result. Some years later, these new experiences led me into the ordained ministry of the Lutheran Church--and I have felt extremely fulfilled and useful ever since.

Sometimes what we see as failure, if looked at through the eyes of faith, is actually a blessing. In the First Lesson assigned for the Sixth Sunday of Easter in the revised Common Lectionary we see the apostle Paul and his missionary companions making no headway in Asia Minor (Acts 16:6-15). They pass through the regions of Phrygia and Galatia and attempt to cross into Bithynia, but the Holy Spirit is just not going along with their plans. Nothing is happening. One night, Paul has a dream in which he sees a man from Macedonia pleading with him for help. The evangelists change direction and sail across the Aegean. There they meet a savvy business woman named Lydia who hears their message and helps them start the first Christian church on the European continent.

St. Lydia Purpuraria
That's kind of the way God does things sometimes. One plan fails so another can succeed. The challenge for those of us who live in a success and status driven society is to see our moments of disappointment as something natural to be embraced and not as some dark evil to be feared.
In the gospel lesson for this Sunday, Jesus makes a promise to his followers,
"Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives." (John 14:27)
This world, with its emphasis on position and riches, promises peace only through acquisition. And how will we ever know if we have acquired enough? Does the world ever offer true peace? Peace which is free from fear? The world gives with strings attached to the gift.
In Jesus, however, we are promised the peace of the Holy Spirit. That is, our friend Jesus is always with us and within us. Success is not measured by fame, wealth, or power. Rather, it is felt internally when we are obedient to God's Word--loving God and loving neighbor and believing in eternity. In this we are free of the world's shallow judgment, and we can change course where the Spirit directs us.
God bless you, friends! Thank you again for visiting.