Historical Script: Blame the Woman (375)

The story of Adam and Eve has always been theologically rich. For much of the Church’s history, however, it has been inappropriately used to blame Eve (and, by extension, all women) for humanity’s fall into sin and the loss of our comfortable place in Eden. To accept that dubious premise though means that we’d also have to affirm that Adam wasn’t capable of thinking for himself, couldn’t possibly accept responsibility for his own actions, and was without a doubt one of the most clueless persons in history. In other words, he’d need to be seen just as every TV commercial depicts men when it comes to how they approach the use of household cleaning products.

So, why does that part of our creation story blame Eve (women)? One possible answer is to look back on when the story was first written down before it later became part of our scriptural canon. Most scholars believe this happened during King David’s reign. That makes sense. It was the first time in Israel’s history when there was relative peace giving them the luxury to write down the history of how God brought them from humanity’s creation to their present time. One of the pivotal parts of King David’s reign was his adulterous behavior with Bathsheba, and later his de facto murder of her husband, Uriah. It rocked Israel and shaped the rest of his reign. It arguably set the stage for the civil war that was later fought by factions supporting King David’s various heirs to the throne. The heir who would become king after David was Solomon, Bathsheba’s son.

Why would King David risk destroying everything by engaging in adultery and murder (of course, he’s not the only political leader to engage in such immoral, self-destructive behavior)? Israel’s historians were asking the same question while writing down the creation story. The convenient answer was that it was Bathsheba’s (Eve’s) fault, and not David’s (Adam’s). A woman manipulated him. So, the scriptural story of Adam and Eve actually becomes, at least in part, a partisan political commentary on Israel’s current events designed to absolve the king from moral responsibility. Blame the woman. To quote the Preacher of Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun.”

The answer as to why David did what he did may be as simple as this: He was the king and as king, he assumed he could get away with it. History affirms such a pattern of behavior in men, at least those who believe they’re immune from moral accountability. They (or their sycophantic historians) find convenient excuses for why they stumbled and fell morally. In other words, there’s a direct line from Eve and Bathsheba to Monica Lewinsky and Stephanie Clifford. This isn’t a very flattering picture of male behavior, but it’s there for all the world to see. The historical script is to blame the woman. Now that’s not to say that women are always entirely innocent in these situations, so please don’t engage in “whataboutism” with me on this.

We all long for “kings” who are morally upright. Yet, most of them will, at times, fail that standard. It’s then that we’d hope they’d confess their sin as King David did when he was confronted with his behavior (“I have sinned against the Lord” – 2 Samuel 12:13). But maybe that’s too much to hope for from us men given our historical track record?



Yesterday was my parent’s 66th wedding anniversary. They were married for 64 years on this earth. It was a grace bestowed upon them by God, yet also a grace they tried to live into daily for every one of those 64 years. For all who are married, marriage is a daily training ground for learning to trust in God’s grace given in Jesus. I’m aware some marriages don’t turn out to be so grace-filled. As a parish priest, I walked alongside many people as they worked through their failing marriages trying to come to grips with that failure. So, I realize that in writing about marriage those who’ve had painful experiences may interpret what I write as some sort of judgment upon them. That’s certainly not my intention. I don’t wish to add to anyone’s heart break. At the same time, if we who are attending ourselves to discipleship in Jesus don’t see grace in the marriage covenant, we might not appropriate its connection to our daily living.

Like with every other sacrament of the Church, marriage is vocational. For Christians, it’s intended more to be something we’re called into, rather than something we fall into. This vocational focus is present in the BCP marriage rite when the church prays: “Make their life together a sign of Christ’s love to this sinful and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair.” To quote The Blues Brothers here, the married couple is “on a mission from God.” Far from adding a burden to the married couple (“On top of everything else, we’re on a mission from God?), this vocational mission helps them see that their covenant isn’t just about them. It’s not just about the spat they had about the toilet seat or any other daily annoyance their spouse visits upon them. It’s about what their life together “signs” to others, not because they’re always getting it right, but because they’re in the daily practice of extending grace to the other, forgiving and receiving forgiveness. And forgiveness is the best training ground for discipleship. We’ll know nothing about God’s grace or how to even begin to be a disciple of Jesus until we learn to practice forgiveness. And marriage, if it’s nothing else, is a daily, fertile ground for practicing and receiving forgiveness.

In the marriage covenant, the couple also learns to practice another discipleship virtue: forbearance. There’s a point in every marriage when one wakes up, turns to their beloved while they’re still asleep, and inwardly asks: “I married this?” And yet, we forbear. We forbear because the other has also asked the same question. What the marriage covenant helps us see, mirrored back to us, is our own imperfections, our own capacity to be petty, ill-tempered, and vindictive, or put succinctly, it helps us come to grips with our own sin. The gift the other gives is that we see in them a reflection of our own brokenness and need for God’s mercy. That will truly become a gift if we don’t run from it, but welcome it into our lives and make it a central part of our own discipleship.

As with most everything, the legendary John Prine sings it best about marriage:
In spite of ourselves
We’ll end up a’sittin’ on a rainbow
Against all odds
Honey, we’re the big door prize


Does Our Past Determine Our Future? (373)

The NPR podcast Invisibilia had a recent episode entitled “The Pattern Problem.” It raised an interesting question: Are we destined to repeat our past patterns of behavior or can we change them in the future? The podcast had two parallel tracks: one was the story of a woman who was the child of addicts and an ex-addict and ex-felon herself. By age 40, she had turned her life around, finished law school, and was now asking the court to admit her to the state bar. The court asked: Will she revert to past patterns by returning to addiction and crime? Or, will her past behavior patterns end? Simply put: Will her past determine her future? In faith terms, we’d ask: Can a person repent and amend their life in a lasting way? Listen to the podcast to hear how it turns out.

The other track was about researchers who believed they could create an algorithm that would predict future behavior. They had a huge data base of children from birth to age 15. They contacted colleagues doing similar research, gave them the children’s data only through age nine, and asked them to create an algorithm to predict what would happen to each of these kids by age 15. The sponsoring team had all the data, so they knew the outcomes for each kid. Each algorithm proposed failed miserably. Even with all the data they had on these kids through age nine, not one team could come up with an accurate algorithm to predict how each of these kids turned out by age 15. Rather than conclude we humans are far more mysterious and unpredictable than they originally thought, the researchers have doubled down and gone back to work believing they’ll eventually find an algorithm that’ll predict everyone’s future behavior based on their past.

Elizabeth Bruenig recently wrote a column about Peter on Good Friday. In it, she ponders the hour that passed that early morning between the second and third time Peter denied Jesus. She writes that to Peter “[that hour] must have felt like an eternity, sitting there in the nighttime firelight, overcome with dread and uncertainty.” She continues: “The majority of us — who Augustine called the non-valde-boni, the not-very-good-ones—live our whole lives in the space of that hour. We hope. We try. We will probably fail. It will happen over and over again. The most relatable Christians in literature are not the subjects of hagiographies, but of the kind of morally ambiguous stories that amount, in the end, to what we call a life.” Oh my! Yes!

We live in an age of algorithms where many people believe there’s a human answer for everything. We just haven’t found it yet. However, it’s our own courage and cowardice, our own mysteriousness and unpredictability that keeps showing up. It’s only when we accept our own mysterious, unpredictable lives that we learn how grace works on non-valde-boni creatures like Peter, you, and me. Bruenig concludes with this: Grace is “like a spiral, circling around you over and over again as you repeat the same mistakes, drawing nearer and nearer to your heart the longer you seek it. It isn’t that grace is ineffective or inefficient but that we are, being what we are, imperfect vessels for it. The miracle is that it works anyway.” Our past need not determine the whole of our future, but, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that we’ll still do some of the same stupid and inane stuff again and again. God’s grace doesn’t perfect us – it saves us.



Follow Jesus, Not a Partisan Tribe (372)

Our political partisanship continues to be more important to us than our moral commitments. Or, put another way, we’ll change our moral convictions, even those derived from our core religious faith, if those convictions don’t support our partisan “tribe.” This isn’t good news for us Christians, because it exposes our hypocrisy on important moral issues. And nowhere is that clearer than how we’re treating refugees fleeing persecution in their home countries (more on that below).

Michael Barber, a professor of Political Science at Brigham Young University, in his study “Who is Ideological? Measuring Ideological Consistency in the American Public,” found that we’ll change our moral convictions based on the priorities of our political partisanship. Barber uses the prime example of the sex scandals involving our current president. Partisan responses to these various scandals are nearly exactly the opposite of partisan reactions to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal 20 years ago. Barber found that the partisan responses then showed that Republicans by a large majority said that personal moral character mattered, while Democrats said it was less important. Today, he’s found almost a mirror opposite, with Democrats insisting that a president’s personal moral character matters, while Republicans saying it’s less important. “Partisanship,” Barber says, “is an incredibly strong identity among Americans, and once people begin to affiliate with a party, either party, that tends to color nearly everything that they see.” This behavior should make every one of us blush who calls ourselves by the name of Jesus. We’ve allowed our political partisanship to trump our Christian convictions. And we’re seemingly unaware this has happened. We’ve “drunk the Kool-Aid” so much so that we now believe our partisan convictions are compatible with the teachings of Christ. The twisted syllogism goes something like this: “I’m a Christian. I have these partisan political positions. Therefore, my positions must be Christian.”

Nowhere is this more evident to me than in the way we’re treating refugees coming to this country fleeing persecution in their homeland. Recently, I visited a young Christian pastor from Nigeria who’s been held in “detention” (it’s really a prison) in our country for over four years after presenting himself upon his arrival as an asylum-seeker. In Nigeria, armed members of the Boko Haram threatened to kill him if he continued to preach the Gospel. Friends urged him to flee, so he did. Since he’s been detained, his wife, young daughter, and father have all been murdered by Boko Haram. And yet, our government has denied his appeal for refugee status. Fortunately, a judge has issued a “temporary stay” on his deportation order. This young man has been held in prison for over four years now. But he’s not a criminal. He’s a refugee.

Many Christians enthusiastically support our current government’s refugee policy. I don’t know how they square that with the teachings of Jesus. They’ve allowed their political partisanship to trump the Gospel. Across the political landscape, it’s time for us to wake up to how we’ve been blinded by our partisanship. That won’t be easy. The pressure to conform to our “tribal” affiliations is strong. But shouldn’t what Jesus says always be more important to us than what any political leader says? I’d hope so.



Soul Wellness Means Rejecting False Promises (371)

When I first read Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, a few years ago, I was overwhelmed by two seemingly contradictory reactions: (1) Pinker’s data was thoroughly researched and clearly accurate – violence, intolerance, and poverty are on a world-wide decline and that trajectory continues; but, (2) Pinker’s conclusions didn’t square with other data that indicate we live in a world where people increasingly report to be lonelier, more anxious, and in search of greater meaning in their lives. How could both of these be true? If things are getting so much better, if we’re progressing so much, then why are we so unhappy, anxious, and lonely? After all, the project of western democracy and market capitalism was supposed to make things better for more people. But it all comes down to one’s definition of “better.” Our culture defines “better” primarily in materialistic terms. We have no shared definition of what it means to have a sense of doing and being well in the world apart from one defined by the gratification of our material desires. This also perverts any intelligible notions we have about the nature of human freedom. Freedom now appears to be solely defined by the ability to get what we want when we want it.

This week, I read an insightful piece by Andrew Sullivan that made sense of both sets of data. Sullivan writes: As we have slowly and surely attained more progress, we have lost something that undergirds all of it: meaning, cohesion, and a different, deeper kind of happiness than the satiation of all our earthly needs. He goes on to write: [Pinker’s] general view is that life is simply a series of “problems” that reason can “solve” — and has solved. What he doesn’t fully grapple with is that this solution of problems definitionally never ends; that humans adjust to new standards of material well-being and need ever more and more to remain content; that none of this solves the existential reality of our mortality; and that none of it provides spiritual sustenance or meaning. In fact, it might make meaning much harder to attain, hence the trouble in modern souls.

Sullivan nails it. This “deeper kind of happiness” is what Aristotle called eudaemonia, which literally means a “well-spirit.” It’s often translated as “happiness,” which wrongly conveys what he intended. Aristotle was describing a “soul wellness” that comes from living a certain way and not by pursuing happiness. For Christians, we’d say that eudaemonia comes from living our baptismal identity and purpose in the world rather than from pursuing our culture’s definition of freedom and happiness. That means there is indeed a Balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul, but that healing requires us to reject deeply-seeded American cultural values about happiness and freedom that most people have accepted as true without much reflection. Those values will never bring us “soul wellness.” On the contrary, they’re making us emotionally and spiritually sicker. Time Magazine reported this week that a record number of college students are seeking help for anxiety and depression, which is probably in part due to their growing unease with these unfulfillable cultural promises. This is an evangelism opportunity, but before we can share the promises of the Good News of Jesus, we first must confess the sickness in our own souls from swallowing these false promises.



Statement of the House of Bishops of The Episcopal Church
Camp Allen, Texas
March 7, 2018
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19)
At this critical moment young people of the United States are inviting us to turn away from the nightmare of gun violence to the dream of choosing life. The young people of Parkland, Florida are calling for elected officials to:
* ban the sale of assault weapons
* prohibit the sale of high capacity magazines
* close loopholes in background checks

Others are seeking to:
* ban the sale of bump stocks
* raise the age to 21 years to purchase firearms
* challenge the National Rifle Association to support safe gun legislation.

We, the bishops of The Episcopal Church, wholeheartedly support and join with the youth in this call to action.

At the same time, we acknowledge that black and brown youth have continuously challenged the United States to address the gun violence that they and their communities are experiencing. We repent that, as bishops, we have failed to heed their call.

As bishops we commit to following the youth of the United States in their prophetic leadership. To that end we will observe a day of Lament and Action on March 14th, one month to the day after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. We pledge ourselves, and we invite our dioceses, to participate in the “March for our Lives” on March 24 in Washington DC and in cities and towns across the United States. We recognize the urgency of this moment and we recommit to working for safe gun legislation as our church has called for in multiple General Convention resolutions. In addition, we pledge ourselves to bring the values of the gospel to bear on a society that increasingly glorifies violence and trivializes the sacredness of every human life.

We will walk with the youth of the United States today and into the future in choosing life.

Bishops United Against Gun Violence: http://bishopsagainstgunviolence.org


Treating Refugees Humanely (369)

The BBC reported earlier this week that two lions were rescued from abandoned zoos in war-torn Iraq and Syria now have been flown to their new home in South Africa. The older lion, four-year-old Simba, was found barely alive a year ago in a private zoo in Mosul, Iraq. All the other animals had died of starvation or bombing. The younger lion, two-year old Saeed, was rescued from a zoo near Aleppo, Syria. Saeed was born during some of the fiercest fighting of the Syrian civil war and he was “skin and bones” when he rescued last July. After months of rehabilitation, an animal welfare charity called “Four Paws” flew Simba and Saeed to Lion’s Rock, a big cat sanctuary in South Africa. The rescue and rehabilitation of these two lions took countless hours of work by many people and at great financial cost. That’s more than we can say for most human refugees. And it’s that irony that has caught my attention. What if the same effort and expense were made for each human refugee of civil wars?

Now, before I’m overwhelmed with feedback, let me just say I love animals as much as most human beings. After all, I’m afflicted with three dogs at home. I share most people’s conviction that all animals, wild or domesticated, should be treated humanely and there’s never an excuse for intentional cruelty toward an animal. So, I rejoice these two lions were rescued, rehabilitated, and now are safely living in an animal sanctuary. This story, however, does show how these senseless wars have skewed our moral priorities. My hunch is the big-hearted, generous people who worked on and funded the lions’ rescue, rehabilitation, and transport to South Africa did so out of love for animals. That’s a good thing. My further hunch is that for some of these folk what was going through their minds with this: “we may not be able to stop these crazy wars and the hundreds of thousand people being killed, but at least we can save these two lions.”

Four months ago, a woman and her 7-year-old daughter arrived near San Diego and presented themselves to border agents. They had fled from their home in the civil war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. Now, they were finally in the U.S., a place of safety away from the war, seeking refugee asylum. Less than a week later, the woman’s daughter was taken from her without explanation as to where they were taking her or when she would see her daughter again. Today, this woman still remains at a detention center in the San Diego area, while her young daughter is detained in Chicago apart from her mother or anyone else she knows.

This is what I meant by skewed moral priorities. I’m glad the lions are safe now in South Africa, but I’m appalled that we appear to be treating lions far better than human beings. A 7-tear-old girl was taken from her mother and sent a thousand miles away. How could those responsible see that as anything but inhumane (so much for the so-called “family values” we say we esteem)? I know that no one country, even a large, enormously wealthy country like ours, can solve every refugee problem that exists. But, at the very least, we can keep a mother and daughter together and have them live in humane conditions while their asylum application is being lawfully considered. That is, we can if we care at all about our morality.



Google Review of Bishop’s Visitation (368)

Recently, I made an Episcopal Visitation to one of our congregations and, lo and behold, a Google Review was posted afterward by a person going by the internet name “Church Rat.” I found this fascinating. So, as Rod Serling would’ve said: “presented for your approval,” the following is a Google Review of that Sunday, or so I’m led to believe.

I arrived at the church about 5 minutes before the service and was welcomed by a man at the front door. He introduced me to a lady standing next to him. I must’ve looked like a “rookie” because she told me that I should sit with her. I complied and followed her to the back pew. She said this was her regular “perch.” Without saying more, she flipped down some mechanism underneath the pew in front, knelt on it, crossed herself (I assume she was doing that – she did it so fast she could’ve been signaling for the baserunner to steal 2nd base). When she finished what she was doing (praying, I guess, as her lips were moving silently while her eyes were squeezed shut), she sat back down, smiled at me, and said: “Just do what I do.”

The organ music which had been playing softly in the background suddenly became loud and everyone stood up, so I did, too. Down the center aisle came a long line, first young people dressed in red robes with white gowns over them, then what appeared to be the choir (dressed in similar fashion), followed by the clergy, dressed like James Brown did when he was on stage. At the end of the line, was this old man, arrayed in quite an outfit, with a large white pointy hat on his head. My “guide” turned and whispered loudly: “That’s our bishop.” I was unimpressed. Even with all the fancy clothes, he didn’t strike me as much.

After the music ended, there were a series of prayers and Bible readings. Then this “bishop” spoke. I guess it was supposed to be a sermon. He didn’t stand in their pulpit, rather he stood in the aisle near the front pews. He seemed highly amused with himself and evidently thought he was funny as he laughed at his own lame stories. I’ve heard a lot of preaching in my time, but he didn’t scare me much. He did mention the blood of Jesus one time and I got a bit wobbly, but he just kept talking about God’s love, following Jesus, you know, blah, blah, blah. He had exchanged his white pointy hat for a purple beany. I don’t know why though. The service went on from there until they passed the plates for money.

My “guide” was sweet. She tried to get me to go up with her for the bread and wine, but I declined. It’s flu season, after all. When the service (finally) ended, she asked: “Well, what did you think?” Wasn’t it wonderful!” I smiled and agreed. She invited me “next door” for coffee and what she called “treats,” but I hightailed it home. Maybe I’ll go back when the bishop isn’t there. There was something mysterious and compelling about the whole thing. I’d like to try the bread and wine after flu season is over.

I wish you a holy Lent as we show hospitality to all and prepare ourselves for the Easter Resurrection, which is on April Fool’s Day this year. How about that?



The Ash Wednesday Massacre (367)

Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness – from the Collect for Ash Wednesday

On Ash Wednesday, we had yet another mass shooting in a school, this time in south Florida. The picture of a distraught parent from the school hugging another parent with the visible “ash cross” on her forehead will forever be seared into my memory. More senseless killing by a young man who had legally purchased his semi-automatic rifle, which allowed him to shoot many children and reload quickly, multiplying the carnage. Clearly, the young man who did this unspeakable evil was disturbed mentally. Still, he was allowed to walk into a gun store and purchase this weapon (which all experts say is built specifically to kill many people quickly). What 19-year-old needs a semi-automatic assault rifle? What kind of society allows for a gun sale like that to happen? One in need of “acknowledging our wretchedness,” that kind.

I didn’t even need to read the responses from our elected officials. They all read from the same pre-written script that they’ve read from many times before. They express outrage, assure every one of their prayers, and suggest with a tone of moral indignation that we shouldn’t “politicize” this particular tragedy (or future ones, one assumes). Senator Marco Rubio from Florida said: “I hope people reserve judgment…the facts of this are important.” Yes, facts are important. Later, he said, as soon as these facts are known, then “we can have a deeper conversation about why these things happen.”

Except that “deeper conversation” never happens. These mass killings are the price we pay for the current government’s interpretation of the 2nd Amendment (it hasn’t always been interpreted that way in previous generations). More than 430 people have been shot in 273 school attacks since the massacre at Sandy Hook in 2012 and three of the deadliest have occurred just in the last year. And those numbers, representing the lives of real children, don’t even include the mass shootings in Las Vegas and Orlando.

One of the prime directives of any government is the defense of its citizens, particularly the most vulnerable, like our children. Even those who argue, such as the libertarian view does, for the least governmental activity in the life of its citizens agree that the safety and defense of its citizens is the central role of all government. And yet, the elected officials who run our government do nothing other than offer their condolences and prayers and say how awful it is. How is that defending our children?

In our Ash Wednesday litany just two days ago, we confessed to God “all our past unfaithfulness: the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives.” Well, I will confess my impatience right now. I’m impatient with the pride and hypocrisy of all of us as we have come to tolerate this evil. We take great pride as Americans. But the truth is this: We’re all a bunch of hypocrites because even as we say we love our children, we continue to allow them to be killed while we have a non-existent “deeper conversation.”



A Requiem for My Father (366)

Kelly and I are traveling to be with my family to mourn my father’s death. Six years ago this month, I wrote the eCrozier below as he began his decline. It seems right to share a version of it as a requiem for his life:

The old coach is in the late fourth quarter of his final game. The ability he once had to manage the clock, make substitutions, and call the right play is gone. He’s slipping away. The once robust, barrel-chested man who seemingly could do anything he set his mind to, is now bent over, holding on to a walker, shuffling uneasily from bed to chair to restroom. My father is the old coach. Visiting him recently brought back so many powerful memories of my childhood: Teaching me how to swim by throwing me into the deep end, jumping in with me, and then without holding me, telling me I could do it myself, encouraging me all the way to the pool’s edge; showing me the right and safe way to change a car’s flat tire; explaining in painstaking detail the gentlemanly way to behave when a man carries a young lady out on a date; and so much more. My earliest memories of my father are sitting on his knee in our living room helping him (or so I thought) evaluate next week’s football opponents as the projector played game film. He’d say something like: “See how their safety cheats up to the line of scrimmage on first down? By the second quarter we’ll fool him with a play action pass.” At the time I had no idea what he was talking about, but by junior high I was helping him grade his players on film each week.

This week I loaded the old coach in his van and drove him to the cemetery where he and my mother will be buried. He wasn’t exactly sure where we were. We couldn’t find their graves, but we did find where his grandparents, my great grandparents, Edward and Clara, are buried. We then drove on to the little house where he was born in 1929. I wanted to see it again. In 1963 while staying with my grandparents for the day my grandfather introduced me to the Ku Klux Klan with a picture book full of burning crosses. When my father came to pick me up at the end of the day and saw what I had in my hands, he threw the book in the trash, had some harsh words with my grandfather, and we drove off. It would be years before I’d see my grandfather again. On the way home from seeing his old house, he needed to use the restroom, so I stopped at a restaurant and guided him toward the restroom. There I had to help him do everything, even soaping his hands and then drying them off, just as he’d done for me well over a half century before. On the way out, people stared seemingly with pity at this shuffling old man bent over his walker slowly moving between the tables. I wanted to shout at them: “Don’t pity the old coach. Stand up, for a good man is passing by.”

A few years ago, when my father was elected to the Ohio Football Coaches Hall of Fame, one of his former players, who was the first black quarterback to lead one of his teams during the tumultuous 1960’s, wrote to me about his “commitment to what was right, instead of what was popular and convenient.” All the players who ever played for him received that life lesson from my father. And, so did I.