Oh whining victim, open mouth

The great thinker Thomas Aquinas expressed his devotional spirituality in hymns, one of which included,

O saving Victim, open wide
the gate of heaven to man below;
our foes press on from every side;
thine aid supply; thy strength bestow.

Aquinas here appeals to Jesus as the “Victim,” using the old sense of the word, which means a sacrificial animal killed to appease the gods.  Jesus, in Cranmer’s Communion Prayer, is

a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world

Jesus is the unique Victim.  Yes, in the contemporary use of the word, one on the bad end of an injustice or tragedy is a victim with a small v, but none should capitalize that and try to move their experience to the center of the universe.  To do so is idolatry, displacing the cross and the one true Victim offered there.

A now departed Anglican Priest I knew used to warn newly ordained clergy to Remember that you are AT the altar, not ON it.  That is, don’t confuse yourself with Jesus.  See your hardships and sufferings as part of his work, but not equal to or, God forbid, some kind of replacement for what the Son of God uniquely suffered for the sins of the world.  We all suffer as victims but are not the Victim.

Picture from here.

I think that the polarized, tribalized politics Americans roll around in today are just that kind of idolatry.  Even Christians, who should know better, have taken up the cant.  Here’s an example from a left-wing commentary, which is manifestly hostile but admits my point in the very first line quoted here,

Claiming the mantle of victimhood is so politically potent that religious-right leaders are going to do it, no matter how untrue it is, because, to be blunt, they’re not held back by any moral interest in honesty. Getting Grandma to think she’s going to lose her church is a great way to get her to sign her Social Security check over to your organization.

And here’s a piece by a Christian disgusted by our tribe claiming victim status,

Sure, some people don’t like me for my faith, but look around at the other people groups who have it worse. What in the world do I have to complain about? Christ has made me a conqueror and he’s named me as such.

The victim->Victim political game is showing up on HBO in a serialized rendering of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  I read the novel when it came out in the mid-80s.  It is a well done work of story telling, very hard to put down once you start reading it.  Atwood is a very good writer whose words can conjure unforgettable images, which I’m not sharing here so as to avoid spoilers.

But reactions to the story, which envisions a dystopian future in which a fundamentalist Christian putsch has deprived American women of all human rights and dignity, are all about I am Victim hear me roar.  When I was first reading it as a student, a female classmate walked up to me and said, Now you’ll see what life is like in the real world.  Current social media and other commentary on the upcoming production are full of that same angry anxiety.

But the situation of American women seems to be improving in the years since Atwood’s book came out.  More jobs are open, including military command and combat roles.  Women are the majority in higher education and thereby increasingly the people with access to better paying professional careers.  In 2015, 44% of Federal government jobs – the careers populating the wealthiest cluster of counties in the nation – were held by women.

Like American Christians, wailing about being Victims while Christians in Egypt, Pakistan, Nigeria and other places are slaughtered in their church gatherings, contemporary American women waving The Handmaid’s Tale as some kind of new Uncle Tom’s Cabin should strike us as at least silly, if not in need of psychological help.

But such is our politics.  With Christianity and it’s central Victim displaced as a unifying assumption, we find each and every group wanting to sit at the right hand of God without bothering to go by the way of the cross.

Christianity holds that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, but that God in love has sent the saving Victim in whom There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28).  Our politics today holds that me and mine are the Victim and you and yours are the problem.  And me and mine and you and yours want to grab that central power in DC to avenge ourselves on each other.

In so doing we help create the realities we claim to foresee and despise.


Dante, Minos, and a Challenge for Our Time

A brave piece drawn from reflection upon a literary masterpiece.

We might also consider Paul’s warning in Romans 1:18 and following, in which sexual sin is not just a bit of questionable but ultimately justifiable “love”; it is symptomatic of conscious rebellion against God.

the theological beard

Early in his pilgrimage through Hell, Dante (the character) is given a warning. It is a warning he does not heed and consequently a lesson he does not learn. If commentary on canto V of Inferno is any indication, it is also a lesson that we, the audience, have not learned and the consequences of this lesson-not-learned are reverberating throughout both the city of the world and of God.

Making his way from the first circle to the second, Dante and Virgil must pass by Minos, the infernal judge who determines which circle of Hell (and, consequently, which infernal punishment) the condemned will eternally suffer. He is Satan’s sorting hat.

Minos, infernal judge - Michelangelo Michelangelo’s “Minos”

Minos gives a warning to Dante: “O thou! who to this residence of woe approachest!… Look how thou enter here; beware in whom thou place thy trust. Let not the entrance broad deceive thee to thy harm.” Being…

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Jesus, Outfitter

2013-05-04_16-55-24_961The traditional Gospel for this First Sunday in Lent takes place in a wilderness.  For many of us, the word brings to mind forests, like the Black Hills here in South Dakota.  Wild, sure, but beautiful, spiritual, peaceful.

But the Judean wilderness in which Jesus was tempted by Satan isn’t green; it’s more like 2013-05-05_14-06-23_587South Dakota’s Badlands.  Dry, life challenging if not threatening, and suggesting the possibility of a malign visitor…

Ventures into the wilderness require an outfitter, someone who knows how to survive in the environment and can equip another to do the same.

The more I read the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, the more it appears to me that the prayer he taught his followers has direct application to our journey through a “wilderness” that is a spiritual Badlands, where we need to be outfitted against the life sapping forces of the world, the flesh and the devil.

+ In the wilderness, Jesus fasted and “was famished.”  The devil tempts Jesus to manipulate his power to create munchies, and Jesus resists by quoting Moses about not living by bread alone, but by the word from the mouth of God.

And so Jesus outfits us with the petition, give us this day our daily bread, at once a reliance upon God for the physical sustenance that protects us from rash actions born of want and a surrender to the eternal word of God versus the urgent demands of passing situations.

+ In the wilderness, the devil tempts Jesus to force a meaning on God’s word.  “Doesn’t God say his angels will catch you if you fall?  So make Him prove it.  Jump off a tower.”

So Jesus outfits us with the words, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven, an acknowledgement that God’s will, not ours, is sovereign, even in the things of this passing life.  We must not put God to a test devised in our own desires, but seek to know and obey His will as revealed in Scripture.

+ In the wilderness, the devil tempts Jesus with entitlement to all the impressive things of human life, as long as Jesus will worship the tempter – I mean, really worship by falling down in submission, an inferior in the presence of a superior.

So Jesus outfits us with the words, Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.  There is one God, the Father in heaven, the only worthy object of worship.  (If you’re in a liturgical church, note that the church’s prayers are to the Father, through the Son, in the unifying power of the Holy Spirit.)

And Jesus outfits us with the petition, thy kingdom come.  Whatever great things attract us, our “compass” must keep us on the hard trail that leads to life.  We seek the kingdom of God, and so many detours and assumed short cuts lead to destruction.

Jesus outfits us with the prayer, forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.  This is a radical rejection of all the impressive things that allure us deeper into the deadly wilderness and away from the eternal kingdom we seek.  To ask forgiveness is to drop the dead weight of our own self-important achievements and “travel light,” reliant on the mercy of God revealed in Christ Jesus for our life. To forgive others is to reject the power to arrange the world around ourselves.  It is to fast from our sense of entitlement to a “splendid kingdom” of this world, and to equip others with the mercy that can help them out of the wilderness in which they, too, are struggling to survive.

+ Finally, Jesus closes his outfitting prayer with words that seem to come straight from his time in the wilderness, And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.  It is a solemn prayer that God not leave us on our own in the wilderness, but equip us with all we need to resist the tempter.

More than that, it is a profound plea to make our time in the wilderness an outpouring of devotion to God.  Jesus’ final rebuttal of the tempter is, Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.  At these words, the devil retreats, and angels come to refresh Jesus.

Then, he goes out to begin preaching his Good News.  Deliver us from evil is not just a prayer for relief, it is a petition for the freedom to traverse the wilderness with all of the marvelous equipment that the Holy Spirit apportions to us, and to do so as part of an expedition, because no one can bear all of the equipment for the journey.  It must be made with others.

Which is why Jesus outfits us with a prayer to Our Father to provide for and protect us.

Rocks in my head

My current evening lessons are in the Gospel According to John.

Tonight, Jesus gave Simon the fisherman that “Rocky” nickname,

(Andrew) brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).  (John 1:42 NRSV – Cephas/Peter are words for “rock.”)

Peter, famous for vacillating again and again, seems unworthy of the name.

I’ve heard preachers suggest that Jesus was poking gentle fun at Simon, recognizing His follower’s penchant for emotion driven reactions, but this seems inconsistent with Jesus’ later invocation of the name as a foundation of the church,

Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.  (Matthew 16:17-18 NAB)

A few moments later, Peter would evidence his passionate instability by arguing against Jesus’ announcement of His necessary suffering and death, for which Jesus snapped at Peter and called him “Satan.”

Yet Peter would come to understand “rock” as an affirmation of Peter himself and all members of the church as Jesus’ chosen building materials, humbly recognizing Christ as the cornerstone of an ever growing temple,

As you come to him [Jesus], the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says:

“See, I lay a stone in Zion,
    a chosen and precious cornerstone,
and the one who trusts in him
    will never be put to shame.” (I Peter 2:4-6 NIV)

John would see another expansive vision of building stones in his vision,

So he took me in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and he showed me the holy city, Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God and sparkled like a precious stone—like jasper as clear as crystal. The city wall was broad and high, with twelve gates guarded by twelve angels. And the names of the twelve tribes of Israel were written on the gates. There were three gates on each side—east, north, south, and west. The wall of the city had twelve foundation stones, and on them were written the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.  (Revelation 21:10-14 NLT)

All of us who are in Christ, with our flaws that the Lord sees, comprehends and forgives better than we, are His building material.  He knows our part and place in what he is building, and has a name for us that we will receive once we are completed in it,

To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone,with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.’  (Revelation 2:17 ESV)

Here’s a video because I needed something with “rock” in it and didn’t want to do a predictable hymn or something.

Preparing for the Journey

Great thoughts on what, for this year, might be missed opportunity. In Anglicanism, there were/are “Gesima Sundays” in the weeks preceding Lent, a time to get ready for the season.

the theological beard


Ash Wednesday, 2017, Lent has begun. Some people have not yet decided what they are doing for Lent. To people in this situation, I heard someone say, “Don’t worry about preparing for Lent because Lent is a preparation.” The implication being that one does not prepare for preparing. This way of looking at Lent – a preparation – is rather common today. The thought is that as we progress through Lent we are preparing for Easter. So ingrained has this thought become that some are genuinely puzzled by the idea of preparing for Lent. This was once expressed to me by a priest when I had mentioned to him that Lent is preceded by weeks of preparation (both liturgical and practical) in the Byzantine churches. It sounded strange to the priest that there would be a preparation for the preparation.

Is Lent a preparation? Is being a preparation the best…

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