Meanwhile, over in Grantchester…

OK, OK, as an Anglican Cleric I confess that I watch Grantchester, that intoxicating mashup of crime mystery, bromance, soap opera and a dash of increasingly potent theology thrown in.

The third season sports an agonizing slow motion collision as emerging liberal Christianity accelerates and traditional faith and morals gets in the way.

The theological issues all locate around (tell me you didn’t guess) S_X. People want to “love” who they want, marital status, gender, age or social status be, well, darned!

It’s presented with some welcome complexity. In episode 3, the Vicar of Grantchester preaches an ueber liberal homily about being ourselves and grabbing onto this life rather than heavenly hopes. I can’t find a video clip but a UK source quotes a line,

“This is the life we are here for, we owe it to ourselves to live it.”

Seriously, that’s the triumphant theology that claimed my denomination and several others over the decades and you can become a priest or pastor by memorizing and spouting fortune cookie stuff like that. I’m guessing that many of you reading this will wonder why I seem to question it at all.

But the show doesn’t shy away from the reality that what follows the sermon, as key characters act on it, is folly and disaster. Families are threatened (the writers go so far as to show a little girl’s mounting trauma as divorce stalks her parents), a spot of December-May adultery gets obsessive, lies abound and along comes all the real stuff that happens when we poo poo the Gospel and take “what we owe to ourselves.”

But the liberal critique of “conservative” hypocrisy is not ignored. The Vicar tries to change course in episode 4, preaching a moralistic harangue about how giving in to temptation leads to suffering, then going off to his lover for more, well, must-be-love.

There is a closeted gay cleric in the series, and we watch in agony as he tries to “be good” on the church’s terms and proposes to a vulnerable woman, only to break her heart.

The bottom line is that when it comes to S_X (why is that the only aspect of life we debate theologically?), we can’t “live the life we owe to ourselves.”

Grantchester illustrates all too well what liberal Christianity does to people – not just the participants in the act but a whole lot of others who become collateral damage.

It also shows how traditional Christians who try to “have it both ways,” preaching Biblical morality while living carnally, generate the same result, harming themselves and all kinds of innocent bystanders in the process.

I’m old fashioned in the sense that I believe we should preach what the Scriptures say, try to live by them and deal with failures as failures, but with gentleness intended to restore the fallen (which includes each and every one of us, all the time),

Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself. (Galatians 6:1 NLT)

And I believe that people are free to reject Christianity and go do something else – the dice are ours to roll, to be flip about it. If a person thinks the Bible’s plain teaching is nonsense, then don’t claim to live by and represent it. The Vicar of Grantchester seems to have learned that much from the mayhem, taking off his clergy collar and walking away from the church, at least temporarily.

Emancipation Population

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.  Random House, New York, 2017

20170627_081048Well, this novel has an endorsement from Thomas Pynchon on the jacket.  Given that, I’m sure that the world is panting in anticipation of my review.

Lincoln in the Bardo unfolds over a single night as President Abraham Lincoln mourns the death of his young, much loved (even favored) son, Willie.  The story is a wild ride through the supernatural and paranormal – like a complex bottle of wine it has strong notes of Dante’s Divine Comedy, “Walpurgisnacht” from Goethe’s Faust, Wilder’s Our Town, Shakespeare’s Macbeth and a hint of Disney’s Haunted Mansion (the ride at Disneyland.  Can’t vouch for the movie).

The concept of Bardo is Tibetan and refers to a state of existence between one’s initial earthly life and a rebirth to new life.  It has affinities with Catholic ideas of Limbo and/or Purgatory.

In the cemetery where the emotionally crushed President has come to be near his son’s recently interred body, an array of the dead and buried (who have not come to terms with the fact that they’re dead and buried) spend the night in their active, interim state.  Three are the primary narrators and protagonists in the goings-on; many others appear.

The brilliant subtlety of the book is the interplay of spiritual bondage with the historic reality of “The Great Emancipator,” who is bound up in personal grief and the overwhelming national crisis.

All of the denizens of the cemetery are bound – bound by their lack of insight into the fact that they’re dead (back to my bottle-of-wine simile; here’s a taste of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave); bound to whatever dominated them at the moment of death (they manifest with physical exaggerations, such as one character who lived so much through his sensual appreciation of the world that he appears as a living mass of eyes and hands); bound by past excesses requiring acts of atonement; bound by the iron fence of the cemetery and by the arrival of daylight; bound up in the ultimate illusion that continuing fruitless old habits will result in a hoped for outcome.

Lincoln and Willie are arresting figures who break through the binding boredom of the Bardo.  The cemetery residents are as taken with the Lincolns as is the divided nation.  Coming first to gawk at them as a diversion from the nightly routines, the spirits are moved by the Lincolns, and, to the very limited extent that they are able, move them.

This sets the stage for a wild matrix of possible liberations.  Can the spirits accept the feared burst of light that hearkens a new existence?  Can Abraham and Willie Lincoln, if only for a moment, reach some kind of peace across the separation of death?  Can the nation out in the dark beyond the cemetery emancipate those it oppresses and free itself from its devouring battlefields?

The book unfolds almost as a play, with the narration carried by succeeding character voices, and scenes set by historical quotes from Lincoln contemporaries and subsequent historians’ works.  Saunders’ distilled breadth of reading on Lincoln and the culture of the times is a treasure within the other riches of this novel.

Saunders does a masterful job of leaving open the spiritual questions while engaging them with refreshing respect.  A key Christian character must grapple with the fearful mystery of a sovereign God, yet never doubts the tenets of the faith and… well, I need to stay away from a big spoiler on this.  I’ll just say that while this is not a Christian novel, a Christian operating as a Christian has an honorable impact upon what unfolds, and what unfolds honors his faith.

This is a great novel on so many levels, including imagination, history, spirituality, engaging characters (even the plethora of minor ones who show up), emotional punch (I was reading it in the break room at work and had to hide that I was weeping at one point) and wit.

Once you follow Lincoln into the Bardo, you’ll be hard put to do anything but keep reading.

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.

tantrum
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.

“…regarding prayers for the President.”

The grim culture war demon continues to harass the church.  It flogs the brothers and sisters into howling arguments as to why voting for or against a candidate, in particular one seeking the symbolically loaded office of the President, is an absolute Christian duty.

head-pain-demon
Head Pain Demon by The Gurch

It must cause the demon a spasm of pain to read a sober response from a reliably ideological American mainline denomination.  Presiding Bishop Michael Curry of The Episcopal Church issued a plainspoken Statement regarding prayers for the President,

So, should we pray for the President?

We can and, indeed, I believe we must pray for all who lead in our civic order, nationally and internationally. I pray for the President in part because Jesus Christ is my Savior and Lord.  If Jesus is my Lord and the model and guide for my life, his way must be my way, however difficult. And the way of prayer for others is a part of how I follow the way of Jesus.

Anglican liturgies usually include prayer for those in public authority.  I’ve found it salutary to include the names of office holders in corporate, public prayer, because when there is a transition the prayer goes on no matter what person or party is named.  It is somewhat subversive, in my view, as it highlights the abiding kingdom of God over/against the passing kingdoms of the world.

And, as Bishop Curry says, it is our duty.  He cites 1 Timothy 2,

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.  (NRSV)

This Spirit-breathed, Apostolic exhortation lays out a duty which includes interceding for the well being of public figures and finding something positive or at least redeemable in them for which to give thanks, even while we might beg God to correct them via our supplications and other prayers.  More from Bishop Curry,

bishop-curry
Bishop Michael Curry. Photo by Jim Steadman.

I grew up in a historically black congregation in the Episcopal Church. We prayed for leaders who were often lukewarm or even opposed to our very civil rights. We got on our knees in church and prayed for them, and then we got up off our knees and we Marched on Washington. Following the way of Jesus, we prayed and protested at the same time. We prayed for our leaders who were fighting for our civil rights, we prayed for those with whom we disagreed, and we even prayed for those who hated us. And we did so following Jesus, whose way is the way of unselfish, sacrificial love. And that way is the way that can set us all free.

At the same time, I think the Bishop underplays a dimension of the 1 Timothy passage.  We are to ask God’s favor on leaders so that they will be chill.  That’s right, so that they aren’t rampaging, stumbling, or otherwise trampling over the world in some messianic effort to recreate it.  We want their steadiness in humdrum governance which lets God’s people grow in our true identity as citizens of a kingdom not of this passing world, as we await its true and only Savior.

This doesn’t mean passivity on our part.  In the Acts of the Apostles, there is an episode of injustice within the church itself,

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. (Acts 6:1 ESV)

The complaint is not ignored.  A solution agreeable to the whole community is sought.  But a priority is maintained – the urgent is not allowed to eclipse the essential,

And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (6:2-4)

The culture war says that prayer and ministry of the word must take a back seat to the resolution of issues.  Cries for the state to impose “values” or a model of “justice” on an unwilling population, and for the church to leave God out of it and just provide money, meeting spots, statements and volunteers to this or that agenda, inverts the New Testament witness.  And makes the demon’s head stop hurting.

One of my favorite readings came up this week.  It tells us that justice is coming, but that it will not be secured by human volume or violence.  We will solve a problem, temporarily, here while making another one over there, but all the while what the righteous long for is coming to be in ways our overwrought senses tend to miss,

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be discouraged
till he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his law.

(Isaiah 42:1-6 RSV)

It is the church’s work to bear witness to that servant until he returns in the fullness of Lordly power to make all things new and complete.  Even if our witness is ignored and things stay old and corrupt in the meantime.

Praying for kings is a Christian duty; making or unmaking them is always an exercise in compromise with a fallen and passing world.  The culture war demon wants us chained to those compromises, ultimately making them into idols as the objects of faith and ministry rather than its occasional, provisional expressions.

The endless election wilderness

tp-shovelWill the Presidential election season ever end?  We’re so far into this wilderness that it seems to be without beginning or end – a demonic mockery of the true God.

And like the evil powers portrayed in The Revelation, it manages to seduce many disciples of Jesus.  So many words flow in from left and right trying to explain which candidate is God’s choice and which one followers of Jesus must support to prove that they are his true disciples.

I love the passage in the third chapter of Luke’s Gospel, in which the great and powerful are named in all of their entitled glory,

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…

except it turns out that what is essential and most powerful is not with them, but with some “John Doe” nobody out in the sticks,

…the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (Luke 3:1-2 ESV)

The word of God isn’t with this or that candidate or movement.  It’s still with the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, whenever a group of faithful believers gathers to hear that word, baptize others into Christ and proclaim his sacrificial death by sharing Holy Communion until he comes again.  John and Judy, children of somebody something, still out in the wilderness but blessed with what is essential and eternal for the whole creation.

The New Testament political agenda is not elaborate.  A specific command was in the Revised Common Lectionary assignments this past Sunday,

First of all, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind,Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all — this was attested at the right time. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.  (I Timothy 2:1-7)

That’s it.  Pray for the high and mighty of this world to be well and chill out so that we (Christ’s followers) have the peace and freedom to preach and teach Jesus so that others receive the life he’s come into the world to give.

I will say that it is salutary to pray for public officials by name.  You’re sure to wind up praying for someone who rubs you the wrong way.  Even municipal politics produces its share of conflict, so pray for your local officials, state and federal government, courts, the whole lot.  I confess, I find it hard to pray for “agencies” (bureaucracies) because they seem like just the kind of meddlers that like to deprive people of “quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.”  But pray I do… like the apostle says, to do so is “right and acceptable in the sight of God.”

Like John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness.

Leaf me alone

A friend from my Army days hails from New Mexico.  He used to mock ethnic stereotypes by adopting a hyper-Spanglish accent that sounded like a white guy trying to sound barrio.

One of my favorite such phrases was when he was annoyed:

Leaf me alone, esay.

It came to mind when I read John 6:15 this morning:

Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself. (John 6:15 ESV)

Jesus had just fed a large crowd, and they were down for some bread and circuses.

20160817_102837
Tell it to the hand.

So Jesus, sent into the world to save it, temporarily steps away from its tumult to pray, turning his back on the crowd in a prophetic enactment of leaf me alone, esay.

The ancient prophets, picked by God to speak in tumultuous times, sometimes reached a limit at which words, even divinely supplied words, seemed useless or even counterproductive.

The faithful have vanished from the earth, no mortal is just! They all lie in wait to shed blood, each one ensnares the other.  Their hands succeed at evil; the prince makes demands, The judge is bought for a price, the powerful speak as they please.  The best of them is like a brier, the most honest like a thorn hedge.  The day announced by your sentinels!  Your punishment has come; now is the time of your confusion.  Put no faith in a friend, do not trust a companion;  With her who lies in your embrace watch what you say.  (Micah 7:2-5 NAB)

Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time;  for it is an evil time.  (Amos 5:13, NRSV)

My gut instinct is that we are in an evil time.  Of course I could be wrong.  But I sense the church (at least here in the U.S.) in a crazy making situation where people want it to stay out of their business on the one hand but fault it for not coming up with “statements” on this, that and the other thing on the other hand.  People want a theocracy but only for their particular issues.  They will “come by force to make us regents” but only with their hands up our backs as their puppets.

Hence we hear about the Benedict Option, which might be one expression of leaf me alone, esay.  To save our words for God and for those already drawn to him, ignoring all the social media about 10 Things the Church MUST do to attract absolutely everybody all the time.

In Elijah’s day, the crowd was hunting down and killing the prophets.  Godly people hid them in caves to weather the persecution and survive as God’s witnesses for a better day.

You’re no better.

The name of this blog comes from the Bible passage recording the one written document attributed to the Prophet Elijah.

The passage might be summarized as You’re no better.  The King and people of Judah believed themselves to be entitled to God’s favor, even as they behaved in ways no better than neighboring nations.  Elijah warns them of God’s disfavor, and the prophecy comes to pass as the kingdom is devastated by those it considered lesser people.

You’re no better runs through my head as the American political reality show plays on in the two major party conventions, and in the news and social media surrounding them.  There is a whiff of perception in people saying I don’t think I can vote for either one.  But that avoids any recognition of how we might might enable both.

This morning I saw this well done video about the rise of Hitler.  Comments on it, as you might guess, tend to be Yeah that’s exactly what the other side is like.  Which cries out for the warning, You’re no better.  Both “sides” play to our resentments and real and imagined problems; we behave in ways that allow them to grab and maintain power.

You’re no better.  We’re no better.  We need that kind of humility  and realism to stop ceding more and more power to Caesar to slay our bogeymen, who are all to often just flesh and blood neighbors.

But even from the religious or spiritual community, which should carry the prophetic voice, we hear Wait, yes, we are better.  There’s an opinion piece trending, in which the writer condemns a key penitential prayer and demands that Pope Francis abolish it.  Yes, some kind of cosmic peace and love is to be attained by appealing to an authority figure to ban what bugs you, never mind what it means to others.

Which is to say to the author, You’re no better.  

Confession of sin is a great equalizer and can be a source of peace.  It asks us to stop and question what we’re feeling, thinking and doing.  It is to hold up the constant possibility and probability that we’re no better and to restrain action based on the false narrative that we are.  It is to admit that we all stand in need of mercy and, as we receive it, are all obligated to offer it.

I’m no better for sure.  I’m as bad as the next person when it comes to saying There oughtta be a law.  But most laws beyond a few big ones that value and protect all people equally – You shall not commit murder, for example – are just one group of people considering themselves entitled to impose themselves upon others.

Watching the Hitler video can be a good spiritual exercise.  If you can watch and say, Yeah, that’s those other guys.  Glad I wouldn’t have been part of that, it is worthwhile to ponder what Jesus says in Matthew 23:29-30,

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’

Because the odds are we’re no better.