Research released this fall illuminated something I’ve had a hunch about for some time: Many Christians, even those who claim they hold orthodox belief, actually have theological convictions that aren’t congruent with the Church’s traditional teaching. In some ways, this shouldn’t be surprising. We all have a tendency to believe that what we believe is right because, well, we’re the ones who believe it. So then what we believe must be orthodox. Of course, that’s a non sequitur. But sin in our lives leads us to one non sequitur after another, does it not?

This particular research showed divergence from orthodox teaching in a number of areas, but the one that showed the largest gap between the Church’s teaching and research participants’ belief concerned the work of God’s redemptive grace. In the research, two-thirds of the participants said that we’re reconciled with God by our own initiative and then God responds to our initiative with grace. So, we first seek God out and only then does God’s mercy and forgiveness become operative in our lives. This has its own internal logic based on Enlightenment constructs of individualism, fairness, and reciprocity (the old quid pro quo, as it were). It makes sense to us. It sounds like it should be the way God works. It has a certain truthiness to it, as Stephen Colbert might say. As Americans who are steeped in deep internal codes of personal responsibility, we like the idea that we have a co-starring role to play in our own drama of redemption. The problem is: That’s NEVER been the orthodox teaching of the Church.

And that brings us to the 5th Century Englishman, Pelagius. Yes, he was a Brit so we Anglicans have to claim him. He’s in our spiritual family tree. He’s like that crazy great uncle we have that no one in the family wants to acknowledge, but own him we must. Pelagius contended that humans first choose God by their own personal gumption. Our sin, original or otherwise, did not, according to Pelagius, impair our ability to choose wisely by choosing God. In other words, we must choose to appropriate the benefits of God’s grace through the power of our own will. This came to be known as Pelagianism. Two Church Councils, first in 418 A.D. at Carthage and then in Ephesus in 431 A.D., rightly rejected Pelagianism. A century later a spinoff of Pelagianism, known rather non-creatively as Semi-Pelagianism, became popular. This sought to affirm the orthodox teaching about humanity’s original sin, while at the same time still insisting that we must take the initiative for God’s grace to be operative. In 529, the Council of Orange said “nice try Semi-Pelagianists,” and rejected their views.

As I listen to Christians in America, it seems to me that the vast majority of us are de facto Semi-Pelagianists. God’s grace makes us uneasy. Grace doesn’t feel right or fair. It’s like we’re getting something we don’t deserve or didn’t have to work for at all; that we didn’t get it the old fashioned way by earning it. It’s as if someone gave us something exceptionally amazing at Christmas, something it turns out that we really loved and needed, and it’s not that we just forgot to get him anything in return, we actually chose not to get him anything at all. EXACTLY. And, for me, that’s what puts the “merry” in Christmas.

+Scott

 

Facts That Get In The Way of Our Truth (eCrozier #243)

We human beings tend to believe what fits into our narrative of what must be true. When we see or read a news story, if it fits with our narrative, then we’re likely to believe the story, whether it’s true or not. Through “news” sites on the Internet and in stories shared on social media, we’re inundated with “news.” So, maybe more so than in the past, we can have our opinions and biases confirmed by what we read or hear on our preferred multimedia echo chambers. We believe what we want to believe all the while looking for evidence in “our” news that will prove the other side is wrong.

A recent story by Rolling Stone magazine about an awful sexual assault at the University of Virginia turns out to have some dubious reporting. Rolling Stone has issued an apology for its errors. Those predisposed to doubt this particular story or to question whether there is a widespread problem of sexual assault on campuses nationwide can conclude that such a problem doesn’t now exist because of Rolling Stone’s errors. (“See, just what I thought, they just make that stuff up”). Of course, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a widespread problem of sexual assault. It only proves that there was shoddy reporting going on this particular case.

There can be tragic consequences to people when we assume we know the facts of an event. People can vilify others unfairly and jump to conclusions when they believe their personal narratives about what must be true. This occurred recently with the messy conflict at General Seminary. Some people were quick to side with the “aggrieved” faculty while others were just as quick to defend the “unjustly” accused Dean and Board. In both cases, people were reacting out of their biases as to what must be true. The facts, it seems, are less important than how we feel or think the facts must be. My hunch is that this is also playing out in the recent Senate report on the torture of terrorism suspects. None of us wants to believe we tortured other human beings. Some of us don’t want to believe it so much that we won’t believe it no matter what the facts are. It just doesn’t fit our preferred narrative for what we want to believe about ourselves.

I’m as susceptible to this as anyone else. Facts complicate my life. I don’t like the facts about myself that don’t support the personal narrative I want to believe about me. Like anyone else, I’d prefer the truth about me and the truth about the world around me to be the truth I want and not the truth that is. We’re all complicated, fallible creatures and are occasionally delusional in how we see ourselves and the world around us.

That’s why Jesus is the necessary antidote to what ails our humanity. His birth tells us that God fully enters into our messy humanity and his cross tells us that all that self-delusional truth about us, which is part of our sin, is crucified with him on the cross. Jesus’ redemptive work in his birth and in his cross then liberates us so we’re free to be

more skeptical of ourselves and of the things we want to believe. We’re freed from the tyranny of needing to be right all the time. We’re invited into a stance of honest humility since the facts about each of us before God can’t lie. God’s redemptive, gracious love for us isn’t dependent on us having the right opinion. Thank God.

+Scott

 

Time To Wake Up (eCrozier #242)

At the beginning of Advent, Jesus says to us in Mark’s Gospel: “What I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” He’s assuming that we’re already awake, so he admonishes to remain so. We need to be wide awake if we’re to pay attention to what God is up to in the world. But we’re not awake. We’re asleep. And it’s time to wake up. Things are being done in our name while we’re drowsing. People working for us are causing the deaths of young black men for crimes hardly deserving death.

There’s a pattern here and it can’t be comfortable for us to acknowledge. Young black men are at a far greater risk of being killed by police than young white men in similar circumstances: 21 times greater! This is according to ProPublica’s analysis of federally collected data on fatal police encounters. There were 1,217 deadly police encounters from 2010 to 2012 collected in the federal database. The data show that black young men, age 15 to 19, were killed by law enforcement officers at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white young men in that age group faced the same fate.

I’m not interested in arguing anyone’s guilt or innocence. I assume that in nearly all of these cases, white and black, the young men were guilty of some infraction of the law, or at least they were reasonably suspected of it when their death occurred. So let’s take that off the table for consideration. Michael Brown, who was shot dead in Ferguson, Missouri, was no saint. He apparently robbed a convenience store of some cigars prior to being shot by Officer Wilson. But cigar robbery is hardly a capital crime.

And Eric Garner, who died this past July by being choked to death by a police officer, was apparently guilty of selling cigarettes illegally. Again, hardly a capital crime. Yet both he and Michael Brown are dead. And there are many more. The data clearly shows that if you’re a young black man you’re 21 times more likely to end up dead through an encounter with police than if you’re a white young man. That’s a statistical Sanctus Bell. We need to wake up.

What does it say about us as a people when a grand jury this past Wednesday failed to find anyone indictable in Eric Garner’s death? When confronted by police for allegedly selling cigarettes illegally, this unarmed young man was put in a chokehold against the police’s own policy standards. All of this was captured on video. He’s heard saying his last words: “I can’t breathe.” The coroner, an official of the state, legally ruled Mr. Garner’s death as a homicide. So a homicide occurred, but no one is indicted? No one is accountable? Are we still asleep?

Let me be clear: I don’t blame the police. They have a very difficult and dangerous vocation. They’re all formed and shaped by the ethos and culture in which they were raised and by the training they receive as police officers. They’re not the problem, per se. We’re the problem. I blame all of us: Me, you, everyone. No finger-pointing elsewhere. This is our problem to solve and solve it we must for the good of our own souls and for our well-being as a people. We’ve been asleep. It’s time to wake up.

+Scott

 

Our Gospel for this Sunday’s Feast of Christ the King is the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. The parable presents us with a compelling vision of God’s final judgment on the creation. Jesus tells us there’ll be sheep and there’ll be goats. And that presents us with the challenge for how we’ll live with this truth in our lives until God’s final judgment. It’s tempting, of course, to get into the judgment business now by deciding on God’s behalf who the sheep are and who the goats are. The problem is that sheep and goats aren’t always easy to name clearly and without a doubt. Sometimes they are. We can all come up with examples of sheep-like or goat-like behavior in the extreme. But it’s those areas in between where we have difficulty clearly sorting them out.

Years ago I met a real goat, or so I thought. Most people looking at this man’s life would have quickly surmised he was just no good. He was in prison for multiple aggravated assaults and for selling illegal drugs. No one would’ve mistaken him for being in the Good Shepherd’s flock. In the great judgment, he’d be a sure bet to be with the goats. Yet, some of us believed in God’s power of redemption. We gathered at the prison where I baptized him in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. After he was released from prison, I lost track of him. Many years later, I ran into him. To be honest, I was a bit anxious. But my anxiety quickly went away. He smiled, hugged me, and told me his life had changed. He was now a deacon in his Church, married, and working full time as an addiction recovery specialist. Was he a goat who became a sheep? Or, was he a sheep all along and no one saw that but God? Do you see how difficult it is when we get into the judgment business? It can lead us to behaviors that should rightly make us pause. It’s clear to me that our moral confusion around, for example, the torture of terrorism suspects comes from our readiness to judge all such suspects as goats before God.

A check on this temptation to be in the judgment business is found embedded in this parable. One of the least noticed aspects of the parable is also one of its most impor­tant. In the final judgment the sheep don’t even know they are sheep. When Jesus places them at his right hand and ushers them into eternal life, they are clueless as to why. They ask, “Lord, when did we do all these compassionate things to you?” Jesus responds to them, “When you did it to the least of these, then you did it to me.” That alone should make us think again when we’re tempted to place ourselves on the throne of judgment.

This parable then is about God’s faithfulness and love. Like with the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, it’s not the hard work of the la­borers that’s rewarded. Rather, it’s the faithfulness of the landowner who keeps his promise to all the labor­ers. Or, in the parable of the Prodigal Son, it isn’t the spiritual insight of the son that’s crucial. He just wanted to get out of the pig slop and back to life on his father’s farm. Rather, it’s his father’s gracious love that makes it possible for his son to be welcomed home, no strings attached. In this Parable of the Sheep and the Goats we find God’s faithfulness and God’s love combined in the King who is the Good Shepherd of our souls. Because of God’s faithfulness, God honors our human freedom to choose even to eter­nity. But also because of God’s love, God redeems us, and indeed the entire creation, through Jesus.

+Scott

 

Suckers for Misperception (eCrozier #240)

There’s a sucker born every minute – P. T. Barnum (actually a misattribution)

Ipsos, a non-partisan market research company, recently completed a comprehensive survey entitled: “The Perils of Perception.” The results of the survey show how we’re remarkably ill-informed about the society in which we live. For example, the survey showed that we think that only 56% of our country self-identifies as Christian. The reality is 78% of us do. Americans believe that 15% of our country is Muslim. When the reality is that only 1% are Muslim. 51% of us believe the murder rate is rising, while only 30% believe it’s falling. The truth is that it has been falling steadily for over 20 years. The same is true with teen pregnancy. We believe that 24% of all teenage girls become pregnant. The actual figure is 3% and that too has been declining steadily for decades as has the number of abortions performed each year. We also believe that 32% of our population are immigrants. The fact is only 13% of our population are immigrants.

These misperceptions have a real impact on public policy. We vote based on these wildly inaccurate perceptions electing people who reflect back to us our misperceptions. Take our public policy on criminal justice: We demand building more prisons to incarcerate more people, because we believe violent crime is growing and we need to lock more people up. The truth is violent crime, like the above mentioned murder rate, has declined steadily over the last 20 years. But our prison population continues to grow. In the last 30 years, the number of people we incarcerate quadrupled from 500,000 to 2.3 million. We have 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners. And we spend over $70 billion annually incarcerating people, some of that going to for-profit entities who benefit from this misperception. Now, it would make sense to be doing this if violent crime were on the rise, but it’s declined by 24% in the last 12 years.

In the 19th Century, P. T. Barnum is wrongly alleged to have said: “There’s a sucker born every minute.” It seems we’re no wiser now at differentiating fact from fiction. We’re suckers for misperception. If the moral psychologists are right, then we’re such suckers because the misperception is what we want to believe. We somehow want to believe we’re being over-run by immigrants and Muslims, plagued by rampant teen pregnancy, and seriously escalating violent crime. Sounds pretty dystopian to me. But none of it’s true. Yet, we believe what we want to believe regardless of the facts.

A book was recently published entitled: “The Lost Gospel – Decoding the Sacred Text that reveals Jesus’ Marriage to Mary Magdalene.” But, the “Sacred Text” in question isn’t “Lost” and it’s not even a “Gospel.” And to top that, there’s no mention of Jesus or Mary Magdalene in the ancient manuscript in question. Dr. Robert Cargill, a scholar of Syriac language and history, calls the book “speculation wrapped in hearsay couched in conspiracy masquerading as science ensconced in sensationalism slathered with misinformation.” I predict the book will become a best seller. People will want to believe it to be true. Barnum might’ve commented about all this by saying: “I told you so,” but, of course, to my knowledge he never actually said that either.

+Scott

 

Some of you know I’m a huge fan of the singer-songwriter John Prine. And it’s a testament to my love and devotion to the Church and to this Diocese that I’ll be present at this evening’s Convention Eucharist because John Prine is performing tonight at the Savannah Civic Center. Prine’s lyrics are magical and almost always funny while also plumbing the depths of the human condition. A song he sings as a duet with Iris Dement evokes an affect that I want to share in my Bishop’s Address this year. The song is entitled “We’re not the Jet Set,” and part of it goes like this:

No, We’re not the jet set. We’re the old Chevro-let set
Our steak and martinis, Is draft beer with weenies
Our Bach and Tchaikovsky, Is Haggard and Husky
No, we’re not the jet set, We’re the old Chevro-let set. But ain’t we got love

In this Diocese, we’re not the jet set. Most of us are more comfortable with draft beer and weenies than we are with steak and martinis. Haggard and Husky are more likely to be on our play list than Bach and Tchaikovsky. Here in the Diocese we don’t have what a lot of dioceses have in terms of financial resources. We don’t have many large metropolitan areas that provide amenities that would draw people to move to them. With a few exceptions, the counties in our state that are projected to have significant growth are all in that certain diocese to the north, just above the gnat line.

So the demographics aren’t very favorable to us. Demographics, however, aren’t destiny and dwelling on them isn’t faithful. We trust in a providential destiny only God provides. Plus, as John Prine sings, “ain’t we got love.” We have God’s love for us incarnated in Jesus and we have our love for one another. And we have hope, hope that God is moving in our midst working out through us God’s plan of salvation.

Our call, then, isn’t to bemoan what we don’t have or what’s not favorable to us. It’s to celebrate and be thankful for what we do have and the favor God has shown us, and then to put all that we have and all that we are into the coming of God’s Kingdom on this earth, as it already is in heaven.

No, we’re not the jet set. We’re the old Chevro-let set. But this Chevy has many great miles to go and we’re fueled by the hope of what God will do through us to bring about the Kingdom.  And I want us to dwell on that sure and certain hope for these next few minutes. For as the Scriptures say: such hope will not disappoint us.

Now, we’re schooled by cable news and through social media to be afraid of just about everything from Ebola to the dirty ring around our bathtubs. If that were all the news we had, then it would be prudent to be afraid and to feel hopeless. Yet, if we have eyes to see, there are hopeful signs all around us.

1. While as a whole our diocesan Sunday attendance is basically flat, we now have more congregations that are significantly growing than are declining.

2. The core leadership training we’ve offered for clergy and laity through the Church Development Institute (CDI), Emotional Intelligence training, and peer coaching has now begun to bear fruit in many places. Clergy and lay leaders in many congregations are now better equipped to lead growing, vital congregations in the 21st century.

3. Our support for and focus on community ministries has led many congregations to reach out in real, concrete ways into their neighborhoods developing signature ministries that serve to transform people’s lives. We must remember that Jesus did not leave people stuck in their hunger or their sickness or their sin. He fed, He healed, and He liberated them. That’s what our community, signature ministries are all about. From Thomasville to Augusta, from Cordele to Darien, our congregations are embracing a vision of vitality through engagement with their communities.

4. Honey Creek, as you will see this afternoon, is being reborn into a more strategic missionary asset of the Diocese. In the last year, 70% of its ministry directly supported the mission of the Diocese. And 93% of its ministry was church-related. That didn’t happen by accident. We consciously renewed Honey Creek’s mission to be all about supporting God’s mission in and through this Diocese. And, I should add, we’re doing all this operating in the black for the 3rd straight year. When you see Honey Creek’s Director, Dade Brantley, this afternoon, please give him a big hug and a thank you.

So, there are many things we’re doing to help our congregations thrive. And thriving congregations must be our goal if we’re to accomplish God’s mission.

In this last year, while I was on retreat with the Sisters of St John the Baptist, I spent long periods of time praying for you. I did. I spent hours of time praying just for you and for each of our congregations.

There on retreat, thanks to Canon Logue, I brought with me the Field Guide to the Diocese. With that objective data and with my own direct experience with each of our congregations over the last four years, I placed each congregation in three, separate categories: Those that were thriving, those that were treading water, and those that were in decline.

I had some assumptions ahead of time about what congregations in each of those categories had in common that would tell me why they were in the category they were in. I discovered that my assumptions were mostly wrong (it’s good to have our assumptions challenged on a regular basis). It wasn’t the congregation’s location, or its size, or the amount of financial resources it had that defined whether it was thriving. The thriving congregations were of all sizes, in vastly different locations, and had widely differing resources.

There’s only one variable that all the thriving congregations have in common and it’s this: they’re all focused beyond their own doors and their own property lines. They’re concerned with that co-worker who had given up on God saying that if Jesus were real, then he must not love him. They’re focused on that hungry child down the street who won’t have enough to eat tomorrow. They’re alarmed to learn about that senior citizen who was all alone in the nursing home across town. Those are the topics dominating coffee hour conversations and discernment at vestry meetings. How might we reach them with the Good News of Jesus? How might we love them? How might we humbly serve them? Those are the questions being asked and discerned in our thriving congregations.

In contrast, what about the congregations in the two other categories? They’re anxious about their inward issues and talk mainly about surviving and protecting what they now have. Rather than be open to their community, they may feel that they have to struggle against it. While not always the case, this may lead to an unhealthy focus on things like the color of the new carpet in the narthex, or the rector’s recent haircut, or the choir’s lack of musical range. Or more dangerously, they may become focused on finding someone to blame for why their church isn’t thriving. And that blaming, often of the clergy, becomes what fuels the congregation’s life.

So my epiphany while I was on retreat is really quite simple: if we want thriving congregations and thus the transformation of our Diocese, then that’ll only happen when, as Bishop Lesslie Newbigin wrote, local congregations renounce an introverted concern for their own life, and recognize that they exist for the sake of those who are not members, as a sign, an instrument, and a foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of society. (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society)

Now, it would be wonderful if the Diocese had the financial resources to help congregations engage the Gospel in their communities. We’re trying to raise those financial resources. We’re working to get every ounce of mission out of the limited resources we have in the Diocese. We have one of the smallest diocesan staffs in the Episcopal Church for a diocese our size. Frank, Mary, Elizabeth, Rudy, Vicki, Gayle, and Libby, not only put up with me on a daily basis, they’re committed to help all our congregations thrive. I’m blessed to serve with these amazing people.

Yes, it would be wonderful if we had more money and as I said, through the Capital Campaign, we’re working on finding those financial resources.

But, you know, we don’t need money to love our neighbor. We don’t need deep pockets to care about what happens to kids in the school next door or the overwhelmed single mother across the street or the lonely man in the nursing home around the corner. Each of our congregations can make a Gospel difference in their communities without having a dime to do it. All we need is the will to set aside our inward focus and embrace our neighbors with the Good News of God’s redeeming grace in Jesus.

I see hopeful signs of this in so many of you and in our congregations. We must not lose heart or believe we’re incapable of changing our local mission strategy. As a church, we’re facing nothing short of an avalanche of social and cultural change. I don’t need to list all those changes for you. You’ve read about them and you see them every day in your community.

When I was first ordained in 1983 to serve Lake Wobegone Episcopal Church, all we needed for what we understood to be “success” back then was a nice church building in a semi-decent location with passable worship and acceptable music. It didn’t hurt if the priest’s sermons were mildly entertaining, but not too challenging. If we added a clean, safe Church school, then we had a congregation sizable enough to pay all the bills.

But those days are gone and they’re not coming back. Please hear me when I say this: Those days are gone and they’re not coming back. Nostalgia for the past is hindering us from embracing our present mission.

The old road maps for “success” in our congregations are no longer applicable. We can’t just show up anymore, say we’re the church, and people will pay attention. We must take the Gospel into the public life of our communities with a passion and a commitment we’ve not had before. The people of our society are suffering from a lack of grace and compassion in their lives. They’re living in the “mean time” in both senses of that term. Mercy and empathy for one another is in short supply. Only the Gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to renew and redeem us and our neighbors.

As Bishop Newbigin wrote: If the gospel is to challenge the public life of our society…it will only be by movements that begin with the local congregation in which the reality of the new creation is present, known, and experienced, and from which men and women will go into every sector of public life to claim it for Christ, to unmask the illusions which have remained hidden and to expose all areas of public life to the illumination of the gospel. (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society)

Many of you are realizing that. That’s why I see so many hopeful signs of God’s redeeming grace in our congregations. You and I need to see more of these hopeful signs from one another, so we can encourage each another to live into the changes we must make locally in order to grasp the new mission God is placing before us.

The congregations that recognize what time it is will be the congregations that will thrive in the future. Those congregations who don’t, who insist on making the church’s mission only about those who show up, or only about what’s good for me and mine, those congregations will die a slow and banal death. That’s simply the truth.

So, can we let go of our inward focus and embrace our neighbors with Jesus and his Gospel in new and creative ways? Can we take the Gospel out of our churches and into the public square, not to nag or cajole, not to finger point or to blame, but to love and to serve and to bring hope to those who, as St Paul so aptly described, are literally perishing without the Gospel?

Can we do this? I know we can.

It’s true. “We’re not the jet set. We’re the old Chevro-let set. But ain’t we got love.” We sure do have love. We have the love of Jesus for us and for this wonderful and beautiful, yet sinful and broken world in which we live. And the love of Jesus is all we truly need.

 

Alright Guy & Election Day (eCrozier #238)

I think I’m am alright guy, I just want to live until I’ve gotta die
I know I ain’t perfect, but God knows I try, I think I’m an alright guy
–         Alright Guy by Todd Snider & The Nervous Wrecks

The Nervous Wrecks is a great name for a band, isn’t it? And Snider’s song is quite perceptive about human nature. In the song, he catalogues a list of his own sins, but then ends each stanza with the above chorus. The song is a satirical expose of people who have forgotten how to blush and who have become indifferent to their own sin. Their sin is never the problem because they can always spin it to make it look otherwise or at least contend that it’s not as bad as other people’s sin. More often than we care to admit, we all fall into this category of Alright Guys. There are always worse sinners around than us, right? But I hope we know that’s not the point, is it?

Take King David for example. Now there was a sinner. At the height of his power and popularity, King David decides to steal another man’s wife, have that man murdered, and then lie about it afterward. Later, Nathan, his national security advisor, confronts him with the evil he’s done and David admits his sin. But why did he do it when he had everything? The answer the Bible gives us is that he did it because he could. A century later in Israel’s history, King Ahab sees a vineyard that he wants for his own, but the owner, Naboth, doesn’t want to sell it. So, Ahab plots to falsely accuse him of cursing God. For this trumped up charge, Naboth was stoned to death and Ahab got his vineyard. What made Ahab do such a thing? The Bible says he did it because he was the king and he could. A century and half later, King Manesseh was so notorious in his zeal to wield brutal power that the Bible says he shed so much innocent blood that “it filled Jerusalem from one end to another.” Manessah assumed he was impervious to judgment because he had the power and the authority as king.

These kings of the Bible thought their status gave them currency to do as they pleased. I’m sure that none of us have sins that rival Israel’s kings. We see our sins as small potatoes compared to the sins of the powerful. And for most of us they are smaller potatoes, but only in size and scope. Sin is still sin. And that’s true whether it’s done by a king, a nation, a church, or by the likes of you and me.

This Tuesday is Election Day when we elect our own “kings” to govern us. The people standing for election exhibit, at least in part, some Sniderly tendencies (Hey, they know they ain’t perfect, but God knows they try). Yet, they’re quick to blame their opponents, the President, or any other convenient target (but never we the voters because we’re all smart, good looking, and above average!). And they never seem to hold themselves to account. So, we’re stuck with the Alright Guys we elect. Why don’t we have candidates who can be honest about their own faults, be humble in their own use of power, and who aren’t always ready to blame everyone else for the challenges we face as a people? Must we settle for “the lesser of two evils” (or, “the evil of two lessers”)? We get the political leaders we elect, whether we deserve them or not. I’m still hopeful we can do better.

+Scott

 

In 2006, I was Rector of St Philip’s Church in Durham, North Carolina. Not far from our family home and near the East Campus of Duke University, was the Duke Lacrosse house, a house rented by members of the team and infamously known in our neighborhood for loud parties, loutish behavior, and inane vandalism. When some team members were accused of raping an exotic dancer hired to perform at the house, many were ready to believe the accusation. I stayed away from jumping on that bandwagon, limiting my public comments to the known, unseemly behavior of some of the team members in our neighborhood.

Social Media was in its infancy then, but it lit up, as did the gossip around town. Some people in Durham jumped to conclusions and made prejudgments, and then defended such behavior by saying “I’m just expressing my feelings” or “I have a right to state my opinions,” thereby washing their hands of the consequences to real people by jumping to easy conclusions, rendering rash judgments, or making quick condemnations. Social Media has expanded greatly since then, but we who use it have not had an equal expansion in our ethical behavior or our moral compasses.

We’re called as Jesus’ disciples to have moral courage even as we confess our sin. As we sin, our sin should be one of missing the mark like an arrow falling short of a target (the Greek word for sin in the Bible actually means just that). So, in our discipleship we’re at least attempting to shoot the arrow, even if it misses wildly or falls short of the target. Yes, even our best efforts can be an occasion for sin. But they’re to be our best efforts shaped by mercy, humility, and compassion, even as we are sinners.

And that brings us to the recent unpleasantness at General Seminary, which you may know about. It became fueled in social media by quick condemnations of the Board of Trustees and prejudgments about the Dean. While decrying not having contact with the Board, 8 faculty members had their demands posted on social media and on their own website accusingly named “safe seminary.” The Board’s lack of official public communication was proof in some people’s minds of their unwarranted behavior. Many accepted the Dean’s guilt without waiting for an investigation. But those weighing in on social media didn’t have all the information, nor did they have the perspectives of all sides in the conflict. Some offered prayers for everyone involved, but many leapt to conclusions calling for the dean to resign and the Board of Trustees to repent.

I don’t know the whole story and very few of us do. I’m waiting, listening, and learning before reaching any measured judgment. Some of my colleagues in the House of Bishops have rightly requested all involved to seek repentance and reconciliation. Amen. I have no doubt there’s enough sin to go around on all sides. The bloggers, and the blog sites that were their enablers, weren’t included in that request. Those blog sites were just giving people a wide forum to express themselves. And those bloggers were just stating their opinions. Social media is a wonderful way to stay in touch with one another, but it’s a double-edged sword. We should all be careful how we wield it. It cuts deeply.

+Scott

 

Extreme Exercise and Self-Sanctification (eCrozier #236)

“I don’t workout. If God had wanted us to bend over He’d put diamonds on the floor.”
Joan Rivers

“One time I felt like exercising. I sat down until the feeling passed.”
Jackie Gleason

This week the New York Times ran an opinion piece by Heather Havrilesky. The piece reflects on the current extreme fitness craze that’s gaining in popularity. These aren’t exercise programs to stay healthy. Rather these are programs that challenge participants to push themselves beyond their physical limitations. The goal seems to be something my old football coach used to yell out at us during summer training drills: “No pain, no gain!” In other words, if it’s not hurting, then you’re not working hard enough. It does sound more than a little masochistic.

According to Hevrilesky, most participants in these extreme exercise regimens are “well-to-do.” I find that telling. What is it about material and professional success that would lead someone to believe that he/she needed to engage in such extreme exercise? These folk aren’t “settling” for reasonable, healthy forms of exercise. They prefer “workouts grueling enough to resemble a kind of physical atonement. For the most privileged among us, freedom seems to feel oppressive, and oppression feels like freedom.”

When we see the word “atonement,” then we should pay attention. I think her analysis is acute. It’s about self-worth and maybe trying to prove that you’re better than others who can’t run five miles with fifty pounds of rocks in a backpack. This is self-atonement and self-sanctification, pure and simple. Making lots of money, having the good things in life, and achieving status in one’s profession aren’t enough. It doesn’t bring contentment or wholeness. There’s still an emptiness that needs filling up, so “no pain, no gain.” But my hunch is that this too will fail to fill these folks up.

Now, of course, as Christians we should be good stewards of our bodies. They are a gift God gives us in our creation. We shouldn’t treat our bodies like amusement parks or production units. Exercising and eating right are faithful ways to honor our bodies as the godly gift they are. But we maybe should, as the old Anglican saying goes, do “all things in moderation,” recognizing that such extreme exercise, like extreme work-aholism, isn’t good for the soul because they both lead to the sin of self-atonement and self-sanctification where we believe we have the power in ourselves to save ourselves.

It shouldn’t surprise us then that this trend is growing in our culture. As we grow further from lives grounded in God’s providential care and grace and toward lives centered on our own merit and abilities, these sorts of manifestations of “selfism” will only become more ubiquitous. Havrilesky ends her piece with this reflection: “When I run on Sunday mornings, I pass seven packed, bustling fitness boutiques, and five nearly empty churches.”  That says it all. We must reach these folks with the grace of Jesus.

+Scott

 

This week I attended two lectures by Dr. Charles Marsh at the Virginia Theological Seminary’s Alumni Convocation. Dr. Marsh is a professor of religion at the University of Virginia. His topic for the lectures was reclaiming “The Social Gospel for the 21st Century.” His lectures were magnificent. The Social Gospel historically came out of the Progressive Era in our country, a time when theologians were seeking a biblical response to the consequences of rapid industrialization. The Social Gospel provided the theological grounding for ending child labor, limiting the workweek, establishing health & safety laws for workplaces, etc. It was largely successful. It presented a positive, hopeful approach claiming, and this is a broad generalization, that if the church appealed to the populace’s sense of justice and fairness based on Jesus’ teaching, then our human community could get pretty darn close to utopia. As we know from history, what we now call World War I ended such positive expectations for human community.

So the so-called Social Gospel became discredited as being unrealistic. And there was good reason to question its claims. It did not, as Reinhold Niebuhr critiqued it, take into sufficient account the power of our sinfulness and our human propensity to mess even good things up. But the criticisms of the Social Gospel never denied the prophetic claims Jesus’ teachings had on society’s injustices. Nor did they deny that the results of ending things like child labor weren’t a good outcome. Skip ahead 100 years, as Dr. Marsh did in his lectures, and we find ourselves going through a similar economic shift when the Church’s social witness to social injustice is still much needed. What Marsh contends is that this time a Social Gospel must be based on a deep acknowledgement of human sin. In doing so, we all could have a stronger empathy for those who suffer on the margins.

Marsh’s insight is important. If we come to acknowledge our own sinfulness, our own propensity to mess even good things up, then we’ll be more understanding of those who have made bad choices in their lives (or had bad choices made for them) and are now unemployed, stuck in low wage jobs, or don’t have the education to climb the economic ladder. We’ll be less inclined to blame them exclusively because we know our own sin only too well. Marsh referred to what was known as “the hanging sermon.” In previous generations, the night before a criminal was hanged, the entire town turned out for a religious service with the condemned person in the front row. This wasn’t an occasion to focus on the one condemned, per se, but an opportunity for everyone to become more aware of their own real sin before God, realizing as they looked at the condemned man that “there but for the grace of God go I.”

That’s just the tonic our culture needs as we face present social ills like growing income inequality. These days we have the tendency to group people into “good guys” and “bad guys” (with “our tribe” always part of the good guys). This gives us de facto permission to ascribe our status to our goodness while concluding that those on the margins deserve their fate because they lack such goodness. That’s bad theology. A healthy awareness of all human sinfulness, ours especially, can correct such theology. I propose we bring back “the hanging sermon” (the lethal injection sermon?). But would anyone attend?

+Scott