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Musings of an Anglican/Episcopal Priest

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Prayer, Relics, and Miraculous Hope

What started out as a “last throw of the dice” to save the Anglican Communion has succeeded–at least for now. One would think there would be some thanksgiving, but instead there is lots of frustration and outrage. I can understand and respect the frustration that those present at the meeting might have felt as they left–reconciliation when parties are at an impasse usually leaves all sides a little worn and tired, and often, a little bit frustrated–in the sense of not getting what they would want in a “perfect world” of their own design. Reconciled, at least initially, may not mean “happy,” though one would hope it might mean the twinkling of a deeper, growing, joy.

But, I suppose upon reflection, frustration with the discipline leveled at The Episcopal Church is understandable and predictable, both from Episcopalians who do not like the idea of being disciplined at all, or perhaps at being singled out1, as well as from those observers–conservative Episcopalians or members of any number of extramural Anglican bodies in the US, or Anglican provinces around the world–who hoped for the more radical discipline of expelling The Episcopal Church from the Anglican Communion (though lots of folks are incorrectly reporting–or at least headlines are leading people to believe–that this was the result).

So what were the results of the meeting?

First, I think it’s important to note that, despite our tendency to think about ourselves first, the Primates talked about more than The Episcopal Church and sexuality. With that being said, I will talk about other aspects of the Communique at the end of this post. The Primates were forced to release the portion of the communique dealing with the Episcopal Church early, on Thursday evening, separate from the final communique, because of fears it would be leaked and would be subject to spin from whatever media outlet or blog managed to get ahold of it. This despite the fact that the media blackout at this meeting was much better than in the past.

The vote to expel the Episcopal Church failed. So headlines that say The Episcopal Church has been suspended or expelled from the Anglican Communion are simply false. If you read that claim in the body of an article, I might suggest you just put it away and read something else, since it’s likely they’ve gotten a lot of other details incorrect as well.

The way I summarized the portion dealing with the Episcopal Church was this:

We won’t be called on by the teacher, and we’ve been told to stand in the corner, but we haven’t been expelled from the school.

Functionally, what this means is that the Episcopal Church has been (or the Primates have asked that the Episcopal Church be) suspended from full participation in certain committees of the Anglican Communion. The limits spelled out actually continue and put a time frame on an already existing indefinite limit that prevented Episcopalians from being involved in international conversations representing the Anglican Communion to, say, the Roman Catholic or Orthodox churches. Indeed, at St. Joseph’s and in the Diocese of Tennessee, we are familiar with one priest that this earlier suspension in 2010 directly affected, The Rev. Carola Von Wrangel, who was the interim for a time at the Church of the Advent in Nashville, and who visited St. Joseph’s in her ministry capacity with Food for the Poor.

This earlier suspension was possible because these are appointed positions and being “suspended” effectively means that the person doing the appointing–usually the Archbishop of Canterbury–simply doesn’t appoint certain people to those bodies.

The new limits are more involved, being related as their are to a body called The Anglican Consultative Council. It will be up to this group to determine how or whether to adhere to the Primates statement.  The exclusion specifically relates to the ability of Episcopalians on certain international commissions within the Communion itself, and asks that Episcopalians not vote on any doctrinal or polity (structural) decisions. As one of my friends, and former professors, who has a very different take on this meeting than me (believing that the primates have overstepped their authority) put it, “in a purely consultative body, there is no distinction between voice and vote.” He brings up an interesting point. Related to it is simply that there have traditionally been very few actual votes taken at these bodies. They’re more tasked with dealing with specific issues, or crafting consensus statements than they are taking up or down votes, especially on doctrine or polity.

Finally, The Rev. Winnie Varghese, a progressive priest from the Diocese of New York with whom many at General Convention became familiar with through the mellifluous tones with which she announced “The vote is open… the vote is closing…. the vote is closed…” made the comment that “Only in the Anglican Communion is not serving on committees for a time considered a real punishment.” I don’t really want to make light of some peoples’ frustration but… OK… yes I do. This needs to be placed in context. There are a lot of people who would enjoy being excluded from committees. Let’s be honest.

All of that said, I think these actions were significant. They are unheard of. And while people may get frustrated with the Primates–fundamentally a teaching body and not an executive or judicial structure–taking such action, I think, absent some sort of spelled out mechanism for dealing with disagreement, these sorts of things are going to remain ad hoc. I think the decisions were hardly surprising, except insofar as they were able to actually come to an agreement at all. I sort of hope that our Presiding Bishop, when he said this was not the result we expected, actually meant this was not the result we hoped for because, honestly, I don’t know how we could’ve expected anything less, short of the meeting simply breaking down, given the last decade of statements etc… from the Communion on these matters, and the previous actions taken to remove Episcopalians from dialogues. Indeed, on Tuesday of the week of the Primates meeting, when a friend asked for my thoughts about the meeting, and what I thought was likely, I indicated that, at the very least, the earlier limits would remain in place, and that there might be some other mechanisms the Primates would have to limit the involvement of The Episcopal Church on some committees etc. I don’t consider myself prescient, so I tend to think it was a predictable response.

What does this actually mean?

My conviction right now though, given the factors in play ahead of time, is that this is a tremendously good outcome that says much about Justin Welby’s gifts in the area of reconciliation, and speaks volumes for his leadership abilities–including the ability to surround himself with good people.  

I say this because of the fact that even having another Primates Meeting, or ever having another Lambeth Conference (the decennial global meeting of Anglican bishops), was in question prior to this meeting. Welby spent the first 18 months of his Archiepiscopate visiting the provinces of the Communion and talking with their primates. The fact he was able to get them all to the same table again was a huge victory. The fact that they remained there until the end, with one exception (the Primate of Uganda), and even that Primate affirmed the desire that all the churches of the communion remain together, stands in stark contrast to the predictions of boycott or walkout that plagued the meeting beforehand and during. I don’t think we can overstate the importance of some particular retirements either. There has been significant turnover among the primates, and, as anyone who has dealt with organizational dynamics knows, sometimes it’s better to deal with a contentious issue after certain personalities have left the stage, especially when they had toxic relationships with one another that would blow up efforts at consensus building.

I think the results–at the very least, the willingness to stay together in a Communion–however parts of the Primate’s statement chafe–are a witness to the power of prayer, and I commend those who planned the meeting. There were a number of steps that struck me as establishing a fruitful atmosphere for such discussion.

First, having the Community of St. Anselm praying for the meeting throughout the deliberations. This is a new monastic community established by Archbishop Welby at Lambeth Palace a few years ago. The prior is Anders Litzell, who grew up in the Swedish Pentecostal church, and came into Anglicanism through St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Glen Ellyn Il. while a student at Wheaton College (I think this may have been when Bishop Matthew Gunter was rector there). He was later ordained in the Church of England. His ecclesial journey is in some ways emblematic of the community, which has, as part of its core identity and purpose, the coming together of Christians of various denominations and backgrounds:

In addition to the presence of the Community of St. Anselm, there were consistent calls for prayer from members of the Communion (through a better use of the internet and social media than we have seen in the past, I might add. There were even prayer resources posted). Added to the foundational presence of prayer, were items–relics if you will–to inspire holy remembrance. Reflection on where the Anglican Communion came from, on the faith of those who have taken the gospel to all corners of the world in all times. These two items included the top of Pope St. Gregory the Great’s crozier, thanks to our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, alongside the book of the gospels given by St. Gregory to St. Augustine. All of this strikes me as very thoughtful and organized.

To top it off, given that one of the main thrusts of the meeting had to be reconciliation, having Jean Vanier, one of the founders of the L’Arche community, be one of the presenters, was a great way to get folks thinking about the hard work of community and communion.

Prior to and during the meeting, people were predicting a walkout by as many as fifteen of the thirty-eight primates. During the meeting there were stories written about frustration and supposed machinations in the structure of the meeting intended to “keep conservatives apart,” so they couldn’t communicate with one another or stage a protest. Those reports have subsequently been revealed as false, rejected even by some of the most conservative people present, such as Archbishop Foley Beach, of The Anglican Church in North America (a church that some hope, will one day either replace the Episcopal Church as the legitimate representative of Anglicanism in the United States or at least, be recognized alongside the Episcopal Church).

Without some sort of discipline coming out of the meeting, I believe the Communion would likely have fragmented–or at the very least, would’ve remained frozen in conflict. If the Communion had broken up, North Americans wouldn’t suffer appreciably physically–though I think The Episcopal Church would be spiritually impoverished without our Communion connections–but in other parts of the communion there would be real physical consequence to those broken relationships. I don’t think standing in the corner (especially when part of those limits have already been in place for years) is too high a price to pay to prevent that. Doing so also provides for continued engagement on precisely the topics folks are most concerned about. Break relationship completely, and there’s no means to gain a hearing.

The most important decision

I believe the most important decision of the gathering, and the one upon which all else hinges, is the unanimous decision the Primates made “to walk together, however painful this is, and despite our differences, as a deep expression of our unity in the body of Christ,” as well as their efforts to look “at what that meant in practical terms.” This was the most important decision, and in some ways the most surprising in its unanimity. While it’s true that there’s a three year window during which, following the next General Convention, many primates are probably hoping the Episcopal Church will walk back its decision on marriage (which I don’t think is going to happen) and that other provinces, such as Canada, Scotland, and Aotearoa and New Zealand, will decide not to follow suit (which they probably will anyway), that three years also gives us time. It gives us time, I pray, to find what Archbishop Welby talked about–a means of “disagreeing well,” and moving ahead together.

I do want to note some appreciation for our Presiding Bishop. I disagree with Bishop Curry on a number of issues, but, despite not being in 100% agreement with him, I think we should be thankful that he represented us at the meeting. No offense meant against our previous Presiding Bishop, but I believe Bishop Curry’s manner of expressing his faith is one that could more fruitfully engage with the other primates. I also think that he was able to express the positive reasons behind the actions The Episcopal Church has taken as a body, not in terms of capitulation to culture, but, in the best cases, as part of what many within our body have discerned to be faithfulness to Christ. I think this is a reality that those of us who aren’t completely on board with the changes have to deal with respectfully and thoughtfully. Just as when the people asking for recognition of their relationships are not seen as part of a plot to destroy western civilization, but rather as brothers and sisters in Christ, it changes our perspective, so too does it change the dynamic of a conversation when we recognize that a brother or sister who disagrees with us claims they’re holding their position out of loyalty to Jesus. That’s the place where I believe good conversation and debate amongst Christians has to begin.

Episcopal News Service released an article that contained a portion of Bishop Curry’s remarks prior to the vote:

Before the Jan. 14 vote, Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry told the primates gathering Jan. 11-15 in Canterbury, England, that the statement calling for the sanctions would be painful for many in the Episcopal Church to receive.

“Many of us have committed ourselves and our church to being ‘a house of prayer for all people,’ as the Bible says, when all are truly welcome,” Curry said in remarks he later made available to Episcopal News Service. “Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all. While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ.

“For so many who are committed to following Jesus in the way of love and being a church that lives that love, this decision will bring real pain,” he added. “For fellow disciples of Jesus in our church who are gay or lesbian, this will bring more pain. For many who have felt and been rejected by the church because of who they are, for many who have felt and been rejected by families and communities, our church opening itself in love was a sign of hope. And this will add pain on top of pain.”

Curry told the primates that he was in no sense comparing his own pain to theirs, but “I stand before you as your brother. I stand before you as a descendant of African slaves, stolen from their native land, enslaved in a bitter bondage, and then even after emancipation, segregated and excluded in church and society. And this conjures that up again, and brings pain.

“The pain for many will be real. But God is greater than anything. I love Jesus and I love the church. I am a Christian in the Anglican way. And like you, as we have said in this meeting, I am committed to ‘walking together’ with you as fellow primates in the Anglican family.” {Read the whole article}

 

How have people been reacting?

With anger, frustration, and hurt, or with exasperation that more wasn’t done. Others have been more temperate. Below are a collection of responses from people in significant positions, or whose response I thought was just well written:

The Rev. Gay Jennings, President of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church (the person who chairs the larger of the two deliberative bodies that make up General Convention), wrote a response in which she reiterated the limits of the Primates authority, the commitment that General Convention would not go back on the decisions that have been made, and that she would attend the Anglican Consultative Council as planned, and intends to “participate fully.” She expressed her appreciation for the Primate’s condemnation of homophobia, and of the criminalization of homosexuality, but shared her concerns for LGBTI community, particularly in Africa. {Read it all}

Bishop Matt Gunter of Fon du Lac, someone who supports the actions of General Convention in regard to marriage, but who would otherwise not generally be called a “progressive,” wrote shared his response on his blog, writing in part “It is important to note that this is not about whether or not the Episcopal Church is a member of the Anglican Communion. We are. That has not changed. Rather, this is a recognition of the deep disagreement with the decisions we have made. I have argued more or less in support of the position taken by the Episcopal Church. I still believe we are on a faithful path. But, I take seriously the strains this has put on our Communion. It is possible to believe that one is right while accepting that acting on that conviction might come with consequences. And then to accept the consequences.” {Read it all}

Bishop Daniel Martins, of Springfield, (Bishop Dan preached at St. Joseph’s a few years ago when the House of Bishops met in Nashville), writes “The Anglican Communion is absolutely vital to our identity as Episcopalians. It calls us out of ourselves and our time-bound and place-bound needs and perceptions. It resources our life of worship and devotion as we drink from the font of accumulated centuries of Christian experience long before the gospel even reached these shores. Our communion with the ancient See of Canterbury is the primary means by which we connect to the great Catholic tradition, the historic episcopate by which we remain faithful to the “apostles’ teaching and fellowship” (language from our Baptismal Covenant). Without the Anglican Communion, the Episcopal Church would be just one more obscure boutique American sect. It’s not an optional extra, but is of the essence of who we are.” {Read it all}

Bishop John Bauerschmidt of Tennessee, my own bishop, writes the following:

“The Primates of the Anglican Communion concluded their meeting today with the issuing of a Communique dealing with a wide range of issues, including climate change, the rise of religiously motivated violence in many places of the world, and the need for child protection measures in all the churches of the Communion. They committed themselves and the churches of the Communion to the evangelical proclamation throughout the world of “the person and work of Jesus Christ.”

But there is no doubt that matters of human sexuality, in particular the 2015 action of the Episcopal Church in changing its marriage canons to make possible the marriage in the church of same-sex couples, dominated the discussions of the Primates. Members of the Diocese of Tennessee should be cautious in reading the headlines in the media. “Addendum A” of the Communique outlines the actual steps to be taken as a result of the Episcopal Church’s action at the General Convention this summer. Members of our church will no longer be appointed to represent the Anglican Communion in ecumenical and interfaith dialogues. They should no longer be appointed or elected to standing committees of the Communion, and in internal bodies of the Communion our representatives will not take part in decisions about matters of doctrine or polity.

Some members of our church will be surprised at these developments, or wonder at their sense or logic, yet they were foreseeable in terms of previous developments and outcomes over the past decade and a half.” {Read it all}

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s brief response is shared in the video below, but I encourage you to watch the longer video in which he reflects on some of the background and context as well, which is included later in the post:

In the media and on the internet, responses have run the gamut. Theologian, The Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner has written about the meeting in First Things, saying:

The extraordinary meeting of world Anglican leaders, organized by the Archbishop of Canterbury, has ended after five days of prayer and deliberation. The meeting’s outcome, articulated in a statement released Friday, has surprised many. When Archbishop Welby called for the meeting of Anglican Primates last September—the Primates are mostly archbishops who head their respective churches—the press billed the gathering as a “last ditch effort to save the Anglican Communion.” Others, claiming inside knowledge of the goings on in Welby’s circle, ominously reported that he was ready to “dismantle” the Communion altogether, in view of intractable divisions among its members. And it is true: Welby presented the Primates with a series of possible ways forward for Anglicanism, that included a radical loosening of relationships.

As it has turned out, however, the Primates decided (“unanimously”) to stay the course of the Communion’s established order, indeed to strengthen that ordering and to maintain the ecclesial commitments that lie behind it. {Read it all}

Some have argued that the results of the meeting, and the consequences announced in the Primates Communique is nothing less than sheer hypocrisy (see Jonathan Merritt’s piece in the Atlantic: The Hypocrisy of Anglican Church’s Suspension of the Episcopal Branch ). I deal with some of Merritt’s critique below in my annotations on the Primates statement itself.

Others have pointed out some of the problematic tones taken by criticism of the Primates:

Memories of this paternalistic and monochrome view of Africa returned as I observed the response of some members of the Episcopal Church to the recent meeting of the Primates. I have listened as we lambasted “the Africans” as if they form one country that spoke one language and shared one view of the world: apparently, uninformed bigotry.[1] We have pretended that they are not a multi-cultural continent with the same mix of good and bad that is indicative of all societies. I must say this as plainly as possible: If Korea, Japan, India, and China shared a similar view on human sexuality would we blame — implicitly and explicitly — “Asian” culture? Would we speak about them as a monolith? Would we assume that they are unthinking and “behind” America and the West? This smacks of cultural imperialism. It is cultural imperialism. {Read it all}

Others, have called out the rancor that seems to be infecting many responses. The Rev. Canon Robert Hendrickson, of St. John’s Cathedral, Denver, writes:

“The Episcopal Church – this supposedly high-minded and elevated form of rational Christianity – has succumbed to the nastiest abusiveness of fellow Christians.  Whether it is the veiled racism of referring to “the Africans” or the copious use of various forms of the word “bigot” or casting the acts of the Primates as devious and underhanded – we are reacting in ways entirely out of proportion to the sanction that we have received.” (Read it all)

Hendrickson’s closing is perhaps the best word I’ve yet seen on the matter: “So let’s take a breath and heed Psalm 37, ‘Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.'”

I would encourage folks to watch the video of the post meeting press conference, as well as Bishop Curry’s more in depth response, and then read the Communique in full below.

 

A longer interview with Presiding Bishop Michael Curry following the Primates meeting:

The Primates Communique, with my comments bracketed and in bold italics:

Continue reading


  1. People have rightly pointed out that the Windsor Report, which in some ways laid the foundation for much of what has transpired since, even though it has not been adhered to completely, condemns the crossing of church boundaries by bishops from one province into another, such as that which happened with the establishment of The Anglican Mission in America (Originally Rwanda, now… well, it’s complicated), The Convocation of Anglicans in North America (Nigeria), as well as various parishes sponsored by Kenyan, Ugandan, and various South American provinces, which have mostly now joined together into the Anglican Church in North America. I suppose the argument of the border crossing bishops would be that they are not now actively crossing borders, the division now being maintained wholly by the choice of Americans. There is a bit more meat to the charge of hypocrisy related to the criminalization of homosexuality in some African countries, with the support of some Anglicans. But the situation is not exactly the same, because, on the one hand the Communion is dealing with official legislative actions by The Episcopal Church, while on the other it is dealing with opinions and political positions taken by individual Anglicans, which, while including some clergy, it still pretty far out of the scope of something one would discipline a province for. The one charge of hypocrisy that does, in some ways, ring true, has to do with the Anglican Church of Canada, which is not so far removed from the Episcopal Church. The answer to why The US has been disciplined and the Canadians have not, to my mind, is related to the same issues that lead some folks to say that you should claim to be Canadian and not American when you travel abroad. People have a chip on their shoulder about what they perceive–whether rightly or wrongly in any particular situation, as American arrogance. []

On Marriage & Sports Movies

Sermon notes for Proper 22B
October 4, 2015
Scriptures:  Genesis 2:18-24, Mark 10:2-16

Imagine for a moment that you are in the midst of a situation well known as the context of a variety of sports films. You know the ones; the hero triumphs over seemingly insurmountable odds, accomplishing the impossible, winning the respect and adulation of friends and neighbors.

Think about the climax of films like “Rudy,” with the crowd going wild cheering on the hero, letting them know that they believe in them, that they can do it.

Now imagine what the feeling would be if, instead of cheering on the hero, the crowd looked on in indifference, shrugged,and said “it doesn’t really matter one way or the other…” I would say this wouldn’t be seen as particularly encouraging.

Or imagine that you are about to undertake a task which many find difficult, and of which anywhere from 40% to 50% of those attempting it for the first time fail.  I’m not talking about scaling mountains; I’m referring to marriage.

In our Gospel lesson Jesus is approached by a group of Pharisees who are trying to put him to the test. Now there could be two senses in which they were testing him. The first is political, it could be that they were attempting to get Jesus in trouble with the Herods who ruled the area, who divorced early and often, marrying for political gain. You might recall that it was John the Baptist’s critique of Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife that got his head segregated from his body. So there is a possible political undercurrent.

Recognizing that, it is more likely that the Pharisees were attempting to place Jesus on a continuum related to a contemporary debate between two schools of scriptural interpretation in regard to divorce.

The first school, named for Rabbi Hillel was called to the house of Hillel. The second was the named for Rabbi Shammai, and his followers were referred to as the House of Shammai.

The parallel passage in the Gospel of Matthew is more clear in this regard, as it adds a detail to the question of the pharisees, who ask, “is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?”

That phrase, “for any cause,” is a huge flashing sign letting us know that the questioners expect Jesus to come down in one of these two camps on the question of divorce. If his teaching is consistent with that of Hillel, then Jesus will affirm that a man may divorce his wife “for any cause,”—burning the pot roast, looking at him sideways, you name it—but if Jesus favors the interpretation of Shammai, then he will only advocate divorce because of sexual immorality.

It’s also important to note the specific phrasing of their question: “can a man divorce his wife…” because that’s what would’ve happened. There were a few exceptions depending upon the wealth of the woman in question, or how influenced the people may have been by Greek culture, but those exceptions prove the rule that only men could divorce, not women. Indeed, this is still the case in Orthodox Jewish communities. I read a story a year or so ago about an Orthodox Rabbi who had made a name for himself by “convincing” husbands to write a “get,” or a certificate of divorce, for their wives by taking them for a ride in a van. That’s quite an image.

At the time, this “any cause” divorce, in particular, left women in an extremely precarious position, subject to the whims of their husbands. It is interesting that, even as Jesus’ teaching so often seems to align with the more liberal interpretation of Hillel, on this question he seems track with the more conservative interpretation of Shammai (if one looks at the parallel in the Gospel of Matthew), or perhaps even stakes out a more conservative position.

But the most distinctive element of Jesus’ response is his refusal to take their question on its own terms. He won’t accept their assumptions. Instead Jesus is going to highlight where those assumptions have gone astray.

This section of Mark’s gospel is in keeping with themes that have shown up again and again since the end of chapter 9, through the middle of chapter 10: the reorientation of concepts of power and authority in the kingdom of God, verses the way power and authority are thought of in human political and social systems. Whether Jesus is welcoming children, who were seen not in a sentimental way, as we see them, but primarily as examples of weakness; or disciples who don’t fit expectations, such as the unknown exorcist, or, as here, rebalancing the power between men and women for greater equity, so that men could not simply abandon their wives on a whim

Again and again in his ministry Jesus has emphasized that the law is first and foremost intended to reveal the purposes and desires of God for God’s people, and that it is only secondarily a source of rules governing behavior. Jesus is attempting to reorient the perspectives of the Pharisees and everyone else, so that they can see the intent of God. In other words from Jesus’s perspective, asking what is lawful is, or should be, the same as asking what God desires. It is not so much about what is allowed, or what is legal.

It is possible that the Pharisees tipped their hand in their exchange with Jesus, when they respond to his question, “what did Moses command you?” By saying, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” Jesus asked what had been commanded, and his questioners immediately went to what had been allowed. But this allowance to which they pointed, was an allowance precisely because of that part of us that often puts us at odds with the will and intent of God. “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment.” Instead of finding the will of God in what was allowed, Jesus indicates that the will of God for marriage is best seen in the context of creation. “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

Because Jesus references it, it makes sense to reflect upon our Old Testament reading from Genesis chapter 2 for a moment, and consider what it reveals about God’s intent for humanity and our relationships.

First and foremost, this reveals that humanity is intended to be a relational creature. Relating both to God and to one another. It is not good that human beings be alone. We are intended to exist in relationship with one another—friends, co-workers, neighbors, family, community. With the foundational—the primordial—relationship being that of husband and wife, as the context for the rearing of the next generation.

It is helpful for us to see the humor in this creation account, as the humor points us toward the meaning. When I read the account presented in our Old Testament lesson today, I couldn’t help but think of a show my son Eli watches called Tinga Tinga. It’s a series of stories or fables from Africa that explain certain things about the world, or specifically, about animals; why does the Elephant have a long nose? How did the peacock get its feathers?

But while these stories tell us something about animals, the scriptural account tells us something about humanity, and even more, about God’s intent for humanity. God says, once everything has been created, “It is not good that man–[the Earth creature, the mud man, which is what “Adam” literally means]—should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner” (Gen 2:18).

And so, as with Adam, God forms creatures from the ground, bringing each one in turn to Adam, who gives them a name. This is done in the hope that one of these creatures will be a match: a helper and partner. So imagine Adam looking at an animal and saying “Long legs, a longish neck, a mane… I name you ‘horse,’” or “feathers, a beak, you go cluck… I name you chicken,’” but after each one, saying “you’re nice, but you’re just not a helper and a partner for me.”

None of the animals God has made, magnificent as they may be, can be a helper and partner for Adam; none is his equal. And that’s what these words mean; there is a search for the appropriate match for Adam. There is a history of interpreting “helper” as though it indicated some subservience, but it does not. It makes to sense to read that into the term, since the it is used most often in the Old Testament to refer to God in relationship two Israel: God is Israel’s helper. So the point of this effort, to make everything “good,” is to find an equal helper and partner for Adam.

Finally, after Adam has named every creature God made and, “for the man there was not found a helper as his partner,” God causes a deep sleep to fall on Adam, and God takes one of his ribs and creates the second human. Upon seeing her, Adam recognizes his match and exclaims “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.” There’s a play on words there as well, in Hebrew just as there is in English, as man is “Ish” and woman is “Ishah.” The point is that Adam recognizes his equal, his match, in Eve.

It is in the context of what this text reveals about the nature of human relationships and about the desires of God for us that Jesus hearkens back to it. If we have truly found our helper/partner/match then we will not abandon them, nor they us. The ideal, the intent of God, is that those who marry would marry for life. And this is good news. This isn’t about God’s judgement on those who don’t keep rules. Again, Jesus is trying to shake up peoples’ thinking. We often approach this passage in the same way as the Pharisees, seeking a way to justify or explain marital breakdown. Marriages ended then, just as they do now, because of hardness of heart. Because of our inability to love one another as we ought to, because of shortsightedness, selfishness, because of our inability to be faithful, or our inability to forgive. Jesus’ teaching is hard, it is true, that’s why the disciples, at one point following his teaching on marriage and forgiveness, say “it would be better not to marry!” (Matt. 19:10).

But it is good news because it means that when we are setting out on a task that is so difficult, at which so many stumble, God is rooting for our success. God is in the stands cheering us on saying “You can do it!” How much better does that feel, and how much more encouraging is that reality, than imagining that, in regard to one of the most difficult and important tasks many of us will ever undertake, God might be indifferent?

Once again, this is not about judging those who have divorced. It’s about the reality of God’s hopes for our lives and our relationships. God desires the best for us. The success and the flourishing of all of our relationships, including our marital relationships. To think about that, it might be helpful to consider that, when God says in Malachi, “I hate divorce,” (Mal. 2:16) God is speaking as one who has endured the pain of infidelity, as recounted in Jeremiah (Jer. 3). Just as God desires a whole and intact relationship with his people, so does God desire that the relationships his people have with one another, including marriage, be successful, resilient, and in keeping with God’s hopes and purposes for our lives.

The good news for us, is that God wants us to flourish. God is cheering us on, especially when it’s hard. And for those of us who are struggling in our marriages, we can take heart that God wants us to succeed—just like the heroes in those sports movies, who have the deck stacked against them but somehow come out on top. I thank God for that. Amen.

Featured image: The Creation of Eve by William Blake.

Speak yet again

My latest post on Covenant concerns the Right to Die movement. It was split into two parts:

Speak yet again: on euthanasia, part 1

“I don’t think that there are many folks around arguing in favor of the over-medicalized approach to death as a good thing. We need better ways to die, but euthanasia will not provide them.”

Speak yet again: on euthanasia, part 2

“Part of recognizing the gifted nature of our lives entails recognizing the limits of our own control. This is not an argument for oppression or control by others, but rather a call for a recognition of actual and legitimate limits. While it’s true that we have been expanding the horizons of those limits with our technology for millennia, some elements of those limits are not to be thrown off, else we risk losing the very definition of our humanity.”

If you love me

A while ago, I heard a powerful lecture on the Prophet Jeremiah by Professor Ellen Davis. In it, she said something that is also found in her book Biblical Prophecy: Perspective for Christian Theology, Discipleship, and Ministry. She writes: “The prophet speaks for God in language that is literally visceral: ‘My guts, my guts; I writhe!’ (Jer. 4:19); ‘My guts yearn for [Ephraim/Israel]” (31:20). Although the visceral character of Jeremiah’s words is (regrettably) obscured by most translations, this feature of his poetry is an important indicator of his distinctive place within the prophetic canon. For Jeremiah is a witness to horror who never looks away, and thus he may teach us something of what it is to speak and act on God’s behalf in the most grievous situations” (Davis, 144).

These words, particularly the portion in bold, rushed back to mind yesterday when I saw the photograph that has caused so much controversy, of the Syrian refugees who drowned while attempting to cross from Turkey to Greece and enter Europe. The picture that is ingrained in my mind, along with images of my little boys, is the picture of three year old Aylan Kurdi who drowned with his older brother and mother, and washed up on the beach, leaving his grieving father with no desire to go on to Europe, but to instead return home, alone.

People have argued that these photos should not have been published. In certain respects, in magazines that are known for making their way without ethics, and only for financial gain, I can see why this would be controversial. But taken on its own merits, publication of these photos only brings home the reality of what is facing so many people fleeing from violence, war, and instability in their home countries. Politicians and analysts are right to say that the only long term solution is to encourage stability and peace in the homelands from which these folks are fleeing. But that is just that–a long term solution. In the mean time, we can’t look away from the tragedy of little Aylan’s death, nor from the broader tragedy of which it is a particular example. Something must be done now to aid and welcome those who flee in fear of their lives. And so, the following poem came to me, and I thought I’d share it with you.

If you love me
do not look away
use your gifted eyes
to welcome the world
through tears
In beauty. In pain.

If you love me
do not hide your face
from need. from pain.
from me.
use your face to know
and be known

If you love me
do not close your lips
but use your mouth and
loose your tongue
to encourage
to shape love loudly

If you love me
do not remain with folded hands
but apply your hands to work
that heals
that lifts
the one who has fallen,
Pull the listing boat ashore

If you love me
do not walk away
but plant your feet and
stand
against injustice
and walk
to where you’re needed

If you love me
you will meet me
when you do these things
and loving your neighbor
you love me

Do not look away
If you love me

-JBH, 2015

Learn more from Episcopal Migration Ministries & Jesuit Refugee Service

Episcopal Migration Ministries also conducted a webinar on the Syrian refugee crisis 8 months ago:

A short poem

This came to me a few weeks ago as I was driving to the home of a parishioner under hospice care. The sun was shining through the trees, and the golden light on the lively green leaves was a comforting contrast to the reality of mortality. I hope you enjoy it.

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My latest on Covenant: You can run on for a long time

My latest post at Covenant, on secrets and judgement. Johnny Cash gets in there too:

In March, Michael Cover wrote about James Runcie’s Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death. I have not read the book, but I have watched the Masterpiece Mystery series based upon it, Grantchester.I enjoyed the series and appreciate a depiction of clergy dealing with personal issues that rise above buffoonery.

One issue the show brought into stark relief for me, is the tension that builds between Sidney’s desire to investigate and seek the truth — and to share that truth with his detective friend — and the expectation of pastoral discretion. How often can Sidney betray the confidences of his flock before he is no longer trusted by any of them?

The juxtaposition of Sidney’s compulsion to investigate, and his use of his pastoral role to gather information, highlights a contrast I’ve noted between one of my past jobs and my vocation as a priest.

Before I went to seminary I spent four years working as a private investigator in my dad’s investigative agency. But while I was officially employed for four years, I had many more years of exposure, if not experience, as I started going with my dad to work cases — largely worker’s compensation cases in the early years — when I was around seven years old.

This formed me in the experience of knowing things about people that others do not, and in keeping that knowledge largely to myself. (Of course, until I was ordained, there was no absolute requirement of secrecy).

Since I have been engaged in pastoral ministry, and my dealings with the people of God have revealed that the secrets that sometimes come to light are incredibly convoluted, I have been reflecting on the difference between the role of an investigator and the role of a priest.

{Read it all}

The featured image is The Allegory of Law and Grace by Lucas Cranach 1472-1553. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

On gifts and losses

George MacDonald on Doubt

Words from Hauerwas

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