Monthly Archives: January 2012

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Casting out the Demons that know our names

As I’ve been writing out my thoughts for the upcoming solemn communion preparation class that will begin at the end of February, I’ve been rereading a number of books to refresh and tighten up my thinking on the sacraments. One of these, which I purchased in seminary as one of those “other recommended texts” is by the French Roman Catholic theologian Louis-Marie Chauvet and is entitled The Sacraments: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body.

Something in Chauvet’s introduction struck me as incredibly important for many of us today:

First, theology is a believer’s task. Faith is not at the end but at the beginning of this task. To make an act of faith does not mean simply either to believe that God exists (“believe that” is in the domain of opinion) or to believe ideas about God, beautiful and generous as these ideas may be (to believe for example in science, the immortality of the soul, or astrology, still pertains to a purely intellectual thought process), but to believe in, which means to have trust in someone, to put one’s faith in that person. This is never the product of a merely intellectual reasoning. Because it necessarily involves us as persons in a vital relationship with another, “to believe in” (a spouse, a friend, and so on), belongs more to the relational than to the rational order… (Page ix, The Sacraments, Chauvet).

The contrast that Chauvet draws attention to, between believing that something is or believing certain ideas are true and believing in, that is, putting one’s faith in something or someone, is central to a problem that besets us as Christians. It is not a new problem. It is a very old problem–as old as Christianity itself, as old as faith itself. It is a problem that James, the brother of our Lord rails against in his epistle, putting the problem in stark terms: “You believe that God is one [or simply, that God is]; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder” (James 2:19).

In the account from Mark’s Gospel (Mark 1:21-28) of the exorcism of the demoniac at Capernaum we are faced with the reality of the difference between believing that something is the case and putting one’s faith in something. It has been said by cultural commentators that the standard form of American religion, whether liberal or conservative, takes the form of gnosticism. The term gnosticism comes from the Greek word gnosis, which means knowledge, and while there are multitudinous forms, in the ancient world and in our own day, one of the basic elements is that it depends upon knowledge. Knowing the right things, or perhaps even being one of a select group that knows the right things is seen as salvific. In other words people focus on getting the intellectual details of their theology right. I often say that some folks go into a church and check to see if the statement of faith matches the one they brought in the door with them, as though they were looking at the platform of a political party. Having checked off the right boxes we can confidently remain exactly as we are. Or at least we think we can. In reality, we deceive ourselves: “Even the demons believe–and shudder.” If we believe that we have the right beliefs, and we check our boxes off and never give such things another thought–and by so doing, never experience a softened heart that can be changed by the prompting of the Holy Spirit–then we are not actually experiencing a spiritual relationship with God.

While the language of relationship may be overused in some quarters, and it can drift off into its own form of shallowness, when properly considered, it does help us identify the way we’re to interact with God. For one thing, a relationship is not static, it is dynamic and changing and–ideally–deepening. In such a context it is impossible for us to ever say that we are “done” because there is always some new challenge, some new learning that we’re called to as we seek to reflect Christ more and more in our lives. The problem with believing the right things as a sort of intellectual exercise and believing that’s enough is that it becomes ever more tempting and easy to justify our own actions even when we know–intellectually–that they aren’t the most honoring to God. In other words, intellectual check-lists when divorced from a living–which means humbling, but also an up-building–relationship with God can leave us in bondage to forces in our lives that are positively demonic in the sense that we have given over control to something outside of ourselves that holds us in bondage.

In the encounter at the Synagogue in Capernaum we learn something about the nature of the forces that seek to oppress us: they know our names. This means much more than we might believe. When Jesus teaches in the Synagogue and is challenged by the unclean spirit, the demoniac cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24). The fact that the unclean spirit calls Jesus by name and announces his role (indeed, it is thematic in Mark that the demons understand this reality more clearly than the people) is significant. Historians and biblical commentators remind us of the ancient belief that knowing someone’s name gave you a form of control over that person. In this instance, the unclean spirit is defending against the authority and power of Christ by naming him and showing that his identity is known. In contrast to other exorcists of the time, Jesus performs no elaborate rituals, uses no tools etc…, but simply commands the spirit to be silent and come out of the man. There is no engaging in a game, there isn’t even a contest, the spirit is silenced and exorcised immediately on the word of Christ. It is this action, this demonstration of power and authority (the Greek word is the same) that leaves the people wondering. From this exchange, we can see, on the one hand how knowing something like a person’s name–that is having intimate knowledge of them–can be important, and in certain circumstances can even be threatening. This is not so much about knowing someone’s name, I believe, as it is about knowing enough about them to know their weaknesses. To know someone’s name in the ancient sense may perhaps be related to having someone’s “number” in our parlance. The fact of the matter is that the demons all of us face every day have our number–they know our weaknesses. Those demons, those interior voices, contracted, inherited, or formed, possessing or oppressing us, which I believe are so often related to what some authors refer to variously as our impostors, shadow sides or inner critics–they know our weaknesses and they prey upon them to keep us in bondage.

These are the sins, fears, and the pains that know our name and can paralyze us or prevent us from doing what we know we should. These are the things that drag us back down into the mire of self doubt and pity on the one hand, and the false foundation of self aggrandizement on the other. These are the voices that whisper in the dark that we’re not good enough, that we’re not worthy enough, that we can’t do it, while in the next instant pushing us to go it alone, to rely solely on ourselves and to reject the companionship, friendship, and aid that we need in this life. It’s the voice that tells us no matter how much we succeed, it’s never good enough, that no matter how much we need help, we ought to be able to do it on our own or we’re failures. It’s the desire that prompts the addict to find the next fix, the spouse to reject marital counseling, and any of us to give up and not try something we believe we may be called to do.

The question for us today is this: what are the demons that know our names? What are the things in our lives that limit us, that keep us going round in the same old harmful patterns, that keep us from changing when we know we need to change? All of us need to change. That may seem like a bold statement, but we’re not far enough out from those new year’s resolutions to have forgotten the reason why they’re so popular: the recognition that all of us, in ways small or large need and desire change in our lives. The problem is that most often, we don’t know how to change, we don’t even know where to begin.

A few weeks ago, I gave a bit of a devotional at one of our Wednesday Eucharists, and I mentioned a song I’d recently heard by the singer Ben Harper. I may be wrong, but I don’t think Harper is a Christian. His background is interesting, with a Jewish mother from a family of folk singers, and a father who was part African American and Cherokee. Harper is certainly spiritual, and has recorded plenty of songs on spiritual and even Christian themes, on his own and with the gospel singers the Blind Boys of Alabama. On his latest album, Give Till it’s Gone (a title probably deserving of some reflection in and of itself) he has a song entitled “Don’t give up on me now.” I absolutely love the chorus of this song because I think it epitomizes so well the state in which most of us live most of our lives. It goes like this:

I don’t even know myself // what it would take to know myself // I need to change, I don’t know how // don’t give up on me now.

The gift of the gospel is that it shows us where to start. We don’t have to fear the demons that know our names because the one who is the Lord of all Creation calls us each by name. We are known and loved by God in Christ. The one who had the power and the authority to silence the demons tormenting the man in that Synagogue all those centuries ago in Capernaum can also silence the voices that torment us in our day. For every voice that tempts us to give up, to loathe ourselves, to reject the hope of strengthening or rebuilding relationships with loved ones, or to loose the hope of finally beating some harmful behavior, or even that seemingly insignificant voice that convinces us not to attempt a challenging task–there is a great voice that drowns them out, that calls us by name and silences the cacophony. The first step of change, the foundation of hope, of the ultimate hope presented in the gospel, is that God has not given up on us. On any of us. No matter what we’ve done, no matter what we think of ourselves or what others believe or think about us. We know our worth in the eyes of God, a worth measured in the person and work of Jesus Christ, the one with the authority to silence our demons, and to bring us home to God.

When we face a particularly difficult or trying time, when it seems like we’re fully in the grip of something that knows or name, that capitalizes on our weaknesses, let us remember that we are called by a greater name, the name of Christ, and marked and sealed as his own, forever. In the name of Christ, called by the name of Christ as Christians, we have been and can be freed from bondage. Amen.

An acoustic version of the Ben Harper song I referenced:

Celebration of a New Ministry

I’ve been at St. Joseph of Arimathea for two years as Priest-in-Charge.  This month, I became Rector. This coming Saturday, January 28th, Bishop Bauerschmidt will officially install me during a service at St. Joseph’s:

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Thoughts after Convention

I’ve just returned home from the 180th Annual Convention of the Diocese of Tennessee. After the better part of two days spent in meetings, considering resolutions and hearing reports, I’m pretty much brain dead and for the most part am only doing the most necessary things (like reading stories to my 9 month old son) before bed. But, in the quiet this evening, as I reflected upon tomorrow’s gospel text and ordered my thoughts for my sermon and brief report on convention, my attention was caught by one of the old Prayer Books that sit on my shelf.  This one is a beautiful 1928 Book of Common Prayer printed in 1929 by Cambridge/James Pott & Company in New York. It has fantastic red under gold edging on the pages of india paper.  But it’s beauty isn’t the best thing about it.  It’s what’s inside this Prayer Book, which I picked up at an SPCK book sale while I was in seminary at the University of the South, School of Theology.

As with old Bibles, old prayer books become the repository of mementos and notes, cards printed with favorite hymns and hand written heartfelt prayers. As I flipped through its pages tonight, trying to still a mind that is still on over drive, I noticed the section of family prayers toward the end, it’s pages marked with the incidental dirt of hands pressed against them in prayer.  Obviously the owner of this prayer book had used these family prayers frequently, even marking certain ones with an x, presumably to indicate favorites: For Quiet Confidence, For Guidance, the first of two prayers for trustfulness, and finally the prayer for Joy in God’s Creation and For the Children.

Marking these pages were several sheets of paper including a Prayer for The United Nations Organization adapted from the Book of Common Prayer, and Acts of Devotion. Finally there was what seemed to be the most interesting piece, at least for the present, a prayer for the unemployed by the Bishop of New York, reproduced below:

A Prayer for Those in Need through

Unemployment


Set forth by the Bishop of New York
For Use in the Churches of the Diocese and
by the People in Their Homes

*

O Almighty God Who hast blessed the earth with all that is needful for the life of man, give Thy help and comfort to all who are in need and especially to those who are now suffering through unemployment; stir us to do our part for their aid and relief; help us to realize our responsibility for the injustices of our social and industrial life; fill us with the desire to purify our civilization and make it truly Christian that we may be delivered from the evils alike of grinding poverty and of excessive riches; lead us into the paths of simple and upright living; take from us the spirit of covetousness and give us the spirit of service; show us the way so to order our life as a nation that, receiving the just reward of honest labour, none may want, but each according to his need may share in Thy bountiful provision.

We ask this in the Name of Him Who came into this world to show us the way of justice and love, Thy Son Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

St. Philip's

Come and See, Go and Tell

St. Philip

On December 15th one of the more intelligent, pugnacious, and acerbic banner bearers of the so-called New Atheists passed away.  Christopher Hitchens was well known for his political and cultural commentary, and for his books such as God is not great. There were unfortunately, I’m sure, some Christians who exhibited a bit of schadenfreude at his passing.  On the whole though, his death seemed to inspire thoughtful commentaries and reflections upon the nature of belief and disbelief.

Hitchens was insistent, up to the end of his battle with cancer, that he had no doubts and remained firm in his conviction that God does not exist.  There would be no death bed conversion, no rolling of the dice or Pascal-like wager in favor of theism.

When asked how he would respond if he discovered there was a state of consciousness beyond this life, he responded with “I will be surprised, but I like surprises.”

The most poignant commentary by far was that of his brother Peter. Of course, the commentary of any family member on the passing of a loved one is bound to be poignant.  This was more so because of the long running disagreement between the two, a disagreement centering on faith. While Christopher was one of the more well-known atheists in the western world–or at least the Anglo-sphere–Peter is a Christian and responded to his brother’s book with his own, The Rage Against God: How Atheism led me to Faith.

While Christopher and Peter participated in a number of public sparing matches over the years, limited eventually by their desire that, in Peter’s words, their disagreement not “…turn into gladiatorial combat in which nothing would be resolved and enmity could be created.”

In the end, it seems, faith was a subject that was off limits as a topic that would inspire more heat than light in their relationship.  As Peter writes toward the end of his reflections on his brother’s passing, about the last time they saw each other:

We both knew it was the last time we would see each other, though being Englishmen of a certain generation, neither of us would have dreamed of actually saying so. We parted on good terms, though our conversation had been (as had our e-mail correspondence for some months) cautious and confined to subjects that would not easily lead to conflict. In this I think we were a little like chess-players, working out many possible moves in advance, neither of us wanting any more quarrels of any kind. (In Memoriam: Christopher Hitchens 1949-2011)

Some, perhaps, would be inclined to say that Peter failed in keeping his duty as a Christian, that he should have harried his brother to the end in order to bring him to faith.  I would submit that such a view of sharing the gospel is not only ineffective, but in the end, runs counter to the gospel that it purports to espouse. Fundamentally, such a situation highlights that it is not our responsibility to convert others.

Only God can bring others to conversion, attempting to do so ourselves only serves to alienate people and in fact, drive them away from the opportunity to see God at work in our lives.

The story of the calling of Nathaniel illustrates some of this.

Philip invites Nathaniel

John 1:43-51, the calling of Philip and Nathaniel, closes out the chapter and follows immediately on the heels of the calling of Andrew and Peter. Jesus is traveling through Galilee and he sees Philip along the way and simply says to him, “Follow me” (John 1:43). If Philip asked any questions or had to be convinced, the gospel account is silent. He responds to Jesus’ call quickly, and more than that, he immediately goes out to share what he has discovered, going to his friend Nathaniel and telling him “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth” (John 1:45).

Just as Philip’s response may reveal something of his character, Nathaniel’s response shows that he is at least a bit incredulous, if not cynical of Philip’s pronouncement. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he asks. Some scholars think that this sounds like a local saying, but there is no attestation of it outside the gospel of John. Regardless of whether this were a local saying around parts of Galilee, taking a swipe at Nazareth, Nathaniel shows his quick wit, skepticism and directness with this response.

I would say that, in many ways, there are a lot of Nathaniel’s in our culture today.  People who, while not exactly hostile to faith, are at least skeptical of its more traditional and institutionalized forms. Ours is, largely, a culture that empowers the individual, including in the area of the spiritual. This can be a good or bad trait, but it always means that received authority is a poor support for something you’re hoping to share with others. Likewise, argument becomes a self-defeating tool when trying to share the faith with others.

Imagine, if you will, what might have transpired if Philip had tried to brow-beat, cajole or otherwise convince Nathaniel of the rightness of his assessment of who Jesus is. Nathaniel seems a pretty self-possessed guy, free with his thoughts and secure in them. Of course we can’t know exactly what would’ve happened, conjectural as that thought is, but we can take something important away from the way Philip handles the situation. He doesn’t attempt to overwhelm Nathaniel with the prowess of his logical argument, or to confound him with scripture citation after scripture citation. Philip knows his friend, and that makes all the difference.

Rather than attempt to convince Nathaniel, Philip does something profoundly simple. He says in response to Nathaniel’s quip, “Come and see.”

This is precisely how we’re to respond to the various Nathaniel’s in our own lives today. We share with them what we have found in Jesus Christ, but when it comes time to convince them, time for them to move from audience or bystander to participant, we’re called to simply say, “Come and see.”

This is an amazingly freeing proposition.  Episcopalians and other mainline protestants have rightly been accused of being a bit embarrassed by the “e” word, evangelism.  There’s no denying that one of the reasons our congregations are shrinking is because of a simple failure to share what we have found with others. Few mainline folks invite others to church for example.

And that raises an important question.  Are we neglecting to invite others because we are embarrassed by Jesus, by the forcefulness of other Christians or is it something else.  Is it because we are afraid that people won’t actually meet Jesus if they come to worship with us?

The Invitation is to see Jesus at work

Philip invites Nathaniel to come and see Jesus, and in so doing he recognizes that the impetus for conversion comes not from his argument, no matter how well crafted or how well meaning.  The impetus for conversion comes from Christ himself. It is God who turns hearts, not us.

This truth is evidenced in John by a contrast between what Philip says and what Jesus says. Philip, in his invitation to Nathaniel says that he has found the Messiah, the one of whom Moses and the prophets wrote. Of course, as readers and hearers we know that it is in fact Jesus who finds and calls Philip. The reality behind this is highlighted even more starkly when Nathaniel takes Philip up on the invitation to come and see Jesus.

As Nathaniel approaches, Jesus calls out to him, saying “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” (John 15:47). In the exchange which follows, Nathaniel is amazed that Jesus tells him what he was doing before they met, that he had been sitting beneath a fig tree. Jesus tells him that he will see greater things than these, including “heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51). This demonstrates an important theological truth that will be emphasized even more in John 15, when Jesus says “You did not choose me but I chose you” (John 15:16).

So it is Jesus who does the choosing, not the individual. Philip does not convince Nathaniel, he simply offers an invitation for him to come and see Christ at work.  When we invite folks to come and see, we are inviting them to come and see what Jesus is doing, whether that is in our corporate worship, in the way we live our lives, in the way we respect one another and serve those in need. We are relieved of the need to convince others as though they could come to faith through debate, but we should be reminded of the responsibility to share our experience with others, and to invite them to come and see Christ at work.  When we have come and seen, we have the responsibility to go and tell, without the fear of rejection, without the added expectation of somehow having a good enough argument, or a profound enough story to convince someone else. We bring others to Christ, and let Christ do the work, just as Philip did.

In the past a person hounded by others may have feigned belief to keep the peace in their relationship, or they may have attended church services simply because it was the culturally acceptable thing to do, but today, there is no such pressure. Indeed, societal pressure actually runs against belief or at least active involvement in a faith community. There is truth to the old adage that “a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” In today’s world, attempts to force agreement don’t even result in false believers, they result in people alienated from faith and more people cheering on the criticisms of the New Atheists.

So, while it is unfortunately true that some well meaning Christians would (and have in my hearing) criticize Peter Hitchens for not “doing enough,” and that there are many who would opine with certainty on the eternal fate of his brother, I applaud Peter for not pushing, and for offering a witness to the fact that a Christian can maintain their convictions while also maintaining their relationship with those who do not agree.  When we let go of the lie that we can save others, then we are truly free to share the good news with them, in deed as well as word, and in a situation where words just won’t do, we still have the relationship and we can say, by our love, “come and see” Christ at work in the way we live our lives.

Let all of us who have seen, have the strength to share the truth, and also the strength to let go of what is not our responsibility, so that we can fulfill what is: inviting others to meet Jesus and let him do the convincing.

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Torture, American Exceptionalism, and Chronological Snobbery

C.S. Lewis used to talk about what he termed Chronological Snobbery, that is, the belief that the art, practices, culture etc… of an earlier time are inherently less valuable or evolved than those of the current era. This attitude, of course, crops up a lot at every point in history. Unless we’re incurable cynics we like to focus on the good things going on in our time, and explain away the bad. It goes against the very modern narrative of continual progress to suggest that there may actually be some ways in which we are less moral or less well-equipped than our forebears.1 One of the ways this comes out in the era of the New Atheists and the like, is the condemnation of religion as a source for the world’s ills. Two events in the history of the Christian west in particular bear a great deal of scrutiny and are repudiated, with reason: the Crusades and the Inquisition.

Obviously I’m not going to defend the actions that folks are condemning when they condemn the Crusades and the Inquisition.  The sorts of things people have in mind are fundamentally wrong, whether such actions actually color the whole of either set of events. Moral outrage is not a very nuanced emotion, in large part because it cannot be, and still lead to the sort of cleansing that is needed. An ironic thing came to my attention this evening though, as I read the newest edition of the Atlantic Monthly (January/February 2012). One of the articles in the magazine is entitled “Torturer’s Apprentice” and discusses the use the United States has made of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” I’ve written about issues of torture and Christian belief in the past, and shared resources, here and here.

Our continued justification of torture-by-another-name, as well as other behaviors we would never tolerate from another nation if directed toward us, are attributable to a particularly negative aspect of American Exceptionalism (and no, I am not a person who believes that everything that would fall under that category is necessarily wrong or evil.  I would argue there are definitely good aspects related to the unique character of the United States). I’ve argued in the past that this negative form of exceptionalism, which sees the United States as always being in the right, is in part bolstered by a national narrative that can only exist because of the Civil War and the creation of a shadow side in the form of the American South. Because the United States was purified through blood in the fighting of a morally good war to free people from slavery, somehow it affirms the God-given rightness of all that we do. Ironically, many of those raised in what Flannery O’Connor rightly called the Christ-haunted South (as distinct from Christ-centered) are the most supportive of such a narrative.  On the other hand, I think that Southerners are often in a better position to question the dominant narrative of the spotless moral record of our nation, since there are aspects of our own history–communal and familial–that, when dealt with honestly, force us to weigh our past as a morally mixed bag of both good and bad.

All that is to say, these two factors combined: generalized chronological snobbery overlaid with an unjustified presumption of moral superiority2, lead us to assume that some things done in our name are not wrong because they are done in our name.  Case in point from this article in the most recent Atlantic.  It is not out online yet, so I will simply type the portion I’d like to highlight, but I encourage you to purchase the magazine and read the article in its entirety:

As it happens, the Inquisition invented that defense [i.e. the defense that the number of time someone was waterboarded actually meant ‘pours’ rather than ‘sessions’ and was therefore not as bad as it looked]. In theory, torture by the Church was strictly controlled. It was not supposed to put life in jeopardy or cause irreparable harm. And torture could be applied only once. But inquisitors pushed the boundaries. For instance, what did once mean? Maybe it could be interpreted to mean once for each charge. Or, better, maybe additional sessions could be considered not as separate acts but as ‘continuances’ of the first session. Torture would prove difficult to contain. The potential fruits always seemed so tantalizing, the rules so easy to bend.

 

The public profile of torture is higher than it has been for many decades. Arguments have been mounted in its defense with more energy than at any other time since the Middle Ages. The documentary record pried from intelligence agencies could easily be mistaken for Inquisition transcripts. The lawyer Philippe Sands, investigating the interrogation (which used a variety of techniques) by the United States of a detainee named Mohammed al-Qahtani, pulled together key moments from the official classified account:

 

‘Detainee spat. Detainee proclaimed his innocence. Whining. Dizzy. Forgetting things. Angry. Upset. Yelled for Allah. Urinated on himself. Began to cry. Broke down and cried. Began to pray and openly cried. Cried out to Allah several times.’

 

The Inquisition, with its stipulation that torture and interrogation not jeopardize life or cause irreparable harm, actually set a more rigorous standard than some proponents of torture insist on now. The 21st century’s Ad extirpanda is the so-called Bybee memo, issued by the Justice Department in 2002 (and later revised). In it, the Bush administration put forth a very narrow definition, arguing that for an action to be deemed torture, it must produce suffering ‘equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.’ To place this in perspective: the administration’s threshold for when an act of torture begins was the point at which the Inquisition stipulated that it must stop.

So, the next time someone bashes the Inquisition, perhaps we should tout their humanitarian credentials…

 


  1. Of course, this is not to deny that there’s a whole other swath of people who believe that things were better in the past simply because it was the past, but we’ll leave them to the side for the moment, and talk about these issues in another post. []
  2. This is not to deny that there are areas where a sense of moral superiority is justified–it simply has to be recognized that it is not uniformly deserved–that’s just honesty []