10 March 2018

Active Atonement

TW: for discussion of sexual harassment and abuse.

I've been thinking a lot about atonement and forgiveness in the light of #MeToo movement. It was horrifyingly unsurprising to see the magnitude of sexual harassment and sexual violence in our culture through a twitter hash-tag. Unsurprising because, at least in my experience all of my female friends have stories about being harassed or violated. Some of my male friends do as well, and I don't know how many more might have been but are afraid or ashamed to share their own stories.

Horrific because the fact that sexual violence permeates our culture is not news to most women, LGBTQ people, or people who are marginalized for any reason. Sexual harassment and abuse is an expression of power, rage, and/or control and is never really about sex. The people who wield sexual harassment or abuse already have the power (though they may not admit it to themselves).

#MeToo and the Harvey Weinstein>Harvey Weinstein scandal seem to represent a tipping point in our culture. We, all of us, have been made aware of the pervasiveness of sexual harassment, and are finally ready to listen to the survivors and take action.

Some actions will be taken in the courts, some in public, some at work places, and some of the work will be done in the church.

This brings me to confession, atonement, and forgiveness. Sometimes, as Christians, there is a temptation to skip right from confession (or sometimes accusation, if the abuser is caught rather than confessing) to forgiveness. In particular, survivors of abuse who report it are sometimes pressured to 'forgive' the abuser-- to let it go and move on.

This is not an act of faith or a way to 'heal' a community. This is yet another form of abuse the survivor endures at the hands of their community and the people who should be acting to protect them.

I think this emerges because people are fundamentally lazy and the work of atonement, the real work needed to bring healing to the survivors and, hopefully, to find a path back to humanity and grace for the abuser, is difficult.

It means calling people, people we might otherwise love or respect, to account. It means listening to survivors (some of whom are not as charming or loved as the abuser). It means disruption in the short term, if the abuser is a priest or person of power in the congregation. It means fear of loss, that not only might the community be damaged by this but that it might be lost all together.

However, if we skip the all-important work of atonement we only invite further destruction further on down the road.

Secrets kept in a community can eat away at it like acid; over time destroying bonds of trust.

The survivor of abuse who is told to forgive instead of having their claim fully investigated and action taken against the abuser is further damaged by the community.

Frequently they are forced out of their community by this failure of atonement. The community is further damaged both by rumors that spread in such situations and by the survivor taking their story out to the world and sharing how they were abused and then driven out.

In the short term the lazy impulse to skip atonement may seem like the easy way to solve a problem; however, like an untreated stain that sets in the dryer, failing to tackle the sin of abuse right away only makes the problem worse and much harder to fix in the future.

Jesus didn't call us to take the easy road. He showed us how hard the work of atonement can be when he died a painful death on the cross. He didn't shortcut the process and skip right to the resurrection. We can't have the resurrection without the death.

We can't have forgiveness without confession and atonement. Atonement must take place and like the death on the cross it will be messy and painful.

However, Jesus gave us another gift. He gave us the grace of God to sustain us through difficult times.

There is no shortcut to justice and true forgiveness for the sinner, but there is the promise of grace and the hope of resurrection if the work is undertaken faithfully and with a true desire to atone.

No one can force this work on another and even if an abuser starts the work of atonement the community should act to protect the survivor(s) first.

This may mean taking difficult steps to remove an abuser from a place of power or to evict them from the community. Allowing an abuser to stay in power just because they say they are working on atoning is not atonement, it is enabling them to escape consequences.

We must not use the idea of the importance of forgiveness to shield abusers. We must not give into the temptation of laziness to make our own lives more comfortable in the short term by asking the survivor to be the scapegoat carrying our sins away from us.

We must confront abusers in our midst, call them to account, and remove them from power.

We should confess to survivors that we as a community failed them by allowing an abuser the power to hurt them.

We can atone as a community by taking action to remove the abuser and accepting the messy disruption that such an action will entail.

Given the prevalence of harassment and abuse in our culture, we, above-all, need a plan in place to deal with it.

-=-=-=-=- Originally posted at The Episcopal Cafe on 8 March 2018.

24 February 2018

Let the Lower Lights be Shining

One of my friend's writes personal essays. Today he titled his 'When the roll is called up yonder, or queer confessions of an ex-evangelical'.

Even before I read his essay the song When the Roll is Called Up Yonder started playing in my head and rapidly turned into an earworm. I had to open my Johnny Cash gospel playlist to dislodge it while I was working.

The song that next caught my ear was his rendition of Let the Lower Lights be Shining by P. P. Bliss.

1 Brightly beams our Father’s mercy
From His lighthouse evermore,
But to us He gives the keeping
Of the lights along the shore.

Let the lower lights be burning!
Send a gleam across the wave!
Some poor fainting, struggling seaman
You may rescue, you may save.

2 Dark the night of sin has settled,
Loud the angry billows roar;
Eager eyes are watching, longing,
For the lights along the shore.

3 Trim your feeble lamp, my brother;
Some poor sailor, tempest-tossed,
Trying now to make the harbor,
In the darkness may be lost.

I loved the image of God's powerful steady light shining on us while still expecting us to shine our own, much smaller lights, out into the world.

This got me thinking about one of the bible passages that I have always had a hard time with, the parable of the ten bridesmaids:

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ and while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
~Matthew 25:1-13

This passage has always seemed fundamentally unfair to me. It is the delay of the bridegroom that causes the so-called foolish bridesmaids to lose their chance to come to the banquet.

Maybe this is because I see myself, not as one of the wise bridesmaids, or as the bridegroom, but as one of the foolish bridesmaids. I am, perhaps, organized enough to show up for the wedding and I might be able to afford enough lamp oil to last until midnight, but maybe not.

I understand why the so-called wise bridesmaids might not share their oil. It makes sense to take what they do have and make it last as long as possible, but there is no reason in the story why the wise could not have paired up with the foolish. After all, the arms of the wise might have gotten tired holding the lantern all night. If they paired up with the foolish, they could take turns and not have sore arms the next day.

If we are commanded to be prepared to go with Jesus even though we know not the day or the hour, it seems to me that it is also our duty to reach out with the little bit of light we do have to help our fellow mortals find their way back to shore in safety to and into the the house of the bridegroom in joy.

In the gospel for Friday. We see Jesus calling Levi the tax collector. He doesn't just call Levi he pulls him away from his work in the tax booth. Like the other disciples before him, Levi walks away from his work to feast with Jesus.

Unlike the bridesmaids of the parable, the various followers of Jesus weren't waiting around for someone to come and call them into service. They were living and working and, like the foolish bridesmaids, weren't expecting the call to come when it did.

I wonder if the parable of the bridesmaids is almost wishful thinking on the part of Jesus. None of his own followers were exactly waiting for him to show up. None were buying extra lamp oil because he was late. He wasn't expected at all.

Still, they found a way to follow Jesus and to use their own, feeble, and wholly mortal lights to bring others to him in their own life and beyond through the writings the early church left behind.

So as the song says, "Let the lower lights be burning,". It takes all of our tiny lights to bring the steady beam of God's light in to the world and even foolish bridesmaids and silly disciples can contribute for as long as their lights last.


All bible quotes are from the NRSV text at Bible Gateway.

A pdf of the Book of Common Prayer which contains both the lessons for Sundays and the Daily Office can be found at: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/book_of_common_prayer.pdf

Mission Clare is a good resource for daily morning and evening prayer online.

10 February 2018

Wanting What We Do Not Have

I read through the service of Morning Prayer for Friday at Mission Clare and found that the part of the reading that caught my eye from from the Old Testament.

And the Lord stood beside him and said, I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.
~Genesis 28:13-14

There are multiple times in the Old testament where God promises to spread the offspring of the person God is talking to across the face of the earth.

Back when the stories of the bible were told instead of written and even when the Old and New Testaments were compiled in written form, rewritten, and edited the human population on earth was much lower than it is today.

Today, would being told to 'be fruitful and multiply' really be a blessing?

In year one of the common era the entire human population is estimated to be between 150 million to 300 million depending on the source used.

For reference, in 2017 the entire population of Russia was estimated at 144 million (almost the low end of the year one range) and the population of the United States was estimated at 324 million (the high end of the range for year one). The world population was 7.6 billion or 25.3 times the size of the larger estimate of the human population in year one.

That means that for every one person in year one there are 25+ people today. So the place Issac stood when he dreamed of the ladder would have 25 of his descendants roaming around.

From the frequency with which the idea of one's decedents covering the ear occurs in the Old Testament it is clear something that the men conventing with God desire greatly. None of them say to God, "perhaps covering the earth with humans is not such a great plan" or "what will we all eat if there are so many of us?" or "what happens when we do cover the earth, and the population keeps growing?"

More humans, and in particular more humans who are their direct descendants seems to be a good thing from their point of view.

I wonder why?

From my perspective the human impact on the earth and all of God's other creatures has not been good overall. We have driven creatures like the woolly mammoth to extinction by over hunting. We have destroyed other creatures by eliminating their habitat, killing them for their fur or feathers, or introducing invasive species into their habitat who either eat them or out-compete them.

What benefit did Abraham, Issac, and Jacob see to an expanding world population of humans? Was it just their own posterity? Was it that they saw more humans as creating a better life for everyone (more hands to make work easier)?

These thoughts make me think of two songs that are in my music library. The first is by Sinead O'Conner and the second by U2. Both have similarities to psalms. Ms O'Conner's song "I do not want what I have not got" reminds me of plain-sung psalms in church both in the plaintive melody and the repetition in the lyrics. The song by U2, "I still haven't found what I'm looking for" starts with the idea of following an individual to find something and grows to thoughts of a more universal nature.

Ms O'Conner's song has a sad feeling to it, almost a sense of loss and longing that contradict the words that say she has what she needs. However, she does focus on the idea that what she currently has is good and has value.

U2's song has an upbeat melody, implying that even though they have not yet found what they are looking for, they might some day.

Both reference ideas from the bible in their lyrics.

It seems to me that wanting what we have not got is a part of the human condition. There is the old adage that "The grass is always greener on the other side..." However, once we get to the other side the way back might look better than it did when we left.

I wonder what Issac would think of the world if he could see it today. Would he still want his descendants to cover the earth like the dust does? Would he rejoice in our numbers? Or, would the world he grew up in seem like a treasure he had lost among the sea of humanity that live in modern times?

There is no way to know.

What we can do is acknowledge our human tenancy to want what we do not have and to not fully value what we do have. This can lead to greed and avarice as we see in the story of Exodus and throughout the bible. If we have God, why would we need idols of gold?

Instead of looking to the new and novel, and wishing we had that we can look at what we have now: our bread, our wine, each other, our faith and rejoice in them.

Song: I do not want what I have not got by Sinead O'Conner (lyrics here) Song: I still haven't found what I'm looking for by U2.

All bible quotes are from either the NRSV text at Bible Gateway.

A pdf of the Book of Common Prayer which contains both the lessons for Sundays and the Daily Office can be found at: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/book_of_common_prayer.pdf

27 January 2018

Taste and See

Reading just the snippets of text provided by the Lectionary or the Daily Office gives me the chance to focus my attention on a small part of the bible. This frees up my mind to look closely at the text instead of skimming over entire sections.

However it can also be confusing or remove important context from my view. In the readings for Friday, 26 January about half of Genesis 17 is used for the reading.

The first part starts out clearly enough-- we see God telling Abraham about God's plan to give Sarah a son and Abraham's reaction (verses 15-22).

In the second half of the reading we have Abraham suddenly deciding to circumcise all the males in his household including his 13-year-old son Ishmael and all of the slaves in his house.

The reading as presented gives no context for Abraham's actions. The text says that God had said for him to do this, but that instruction is not included in this section so it seems to come out of the blue.

I ended up skipping back to the beginning of chapter 17 in order to find out what was going on.

This is not a bad side-effect of reading a small portion of the text. For me, the bible can be a bit mind-numbing to read. If I try to approach it like a modern book my eyes start to glaze over. Reading a small snippet and then expanding my reading to text on either side helps me engage with that text. I go in search of answers questions the original text has raised instead of passively absorbing the words as I go.

In the text for Friday reading just the text provided encouraged me to read further and to really think about what I was reading.

I ended up wondering about the choice the writer of this section of Genesis (and all the editors who came after) made to focus on the idea that the child-to-come would be first and foremost Sarah's child. Several times in this short passage the wording points out that the child that God will make a covenant with is the child that Sarah will bear, Abraham is almost an afterthought. If anything, Abraham spends his time in this passage pleading that Ishmael, his son by Hagar, not be forgotten.

And Abraham said to God, “O that Ishmael might live in your sight!”
~Genesis 17:18

Ishmael was Abraham and Sarah's idea and solution to the problem of their barrenness. God does not accept their solution. I find it interesting that the child God wants to make a covenant with must be the child of both Abraham and Sarah. Sarah must be included as far as God is concerned. God is willing to listen to Abraham's plea and to make a place of Ishmael but God's focus is on the coming child by Sarah.

I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.’
~Genesis 17:16

If I had read through all of Genesis in one go, I might have skimmed over this passage. I would have missed the opportunity to think about the exact words used and to come up with my own interpretation.

A year or three from now, I might re-read this section of text and come up with a new interpretation, a new understanding of the words presented for that day's reading.

Like a rich dessert, I find it helpful to take the Old and New Testament in small bites.

The interest, the joy even, of reading a short passage and really thinking about my own thoughts and feelings about that passage and seeing how they change over time as I learn and grow.


All bible quotes are from either the NRSV text at Bible Gateway.

A pdf of the Book of Common Prayer which contains both the lessons for Sundays and the Daily Office can be found at: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/book_of_common_prayer.pdf

06 January 2018

Hero of the Moment

In the readings for Friday's Daily Office three of the major figures of the bible are mentioned. First, in the Old Testament reading we have the introduction of Noah. Then, in the New Testament, we have a mention of Moses. Finally in the Gospel we have Jesus himself in doing his first official miracle-- changing water into wine.

All three of them share, not only mythic status, but a life of ups and downs in their relationships to their followers. They are heroes one moment and goats the next.

Noah listens to God, builds the ark and saves a selection of birds, animals, and humans. He demonstrates his faith. However, once the boat is empty and the vineyard is planted he drinks to excess and ends up at odds with his youngest son, who has seen him at his worst and gossiped about it with his brothers. He divides his own family into slaves (Ham's son Canaan), masters (Shem), and people to 'make space for' (Japheth). A fine dysfunctional ending to a story of a man who saved his family from a flood, only to wind up dividing them after giving into his own weakness.

In the New Testament reading Moses and the disobedient people who followed him are referenced. I was reminded that Moses, as a result of his own disobedience, was not allowed to enter the promised land. It was his successor Josuha who lead the people across the Jordan, leaving Moses buried in Moab.

Finally we have Jesus who initially refuses his mother's request that he help out, but who changes his mind. However, he uses the stone water jars that are intended to hold water for the Jewish rites of purification. I wonder what the owner of the jars though when he found them full of wine? Was he grateful for the wine or dismayed that the jars were used. Would they have to be cleaned after such a use? Would Jesus go from hero of the hour to someone who made a lot of work for other people? As he goes on in his ministry we see him struggle, like Moses, with recalcitrant disciples and women who call on him to be even more than he intended.

This past summer I saw the movie Dunkirkin the theater. One of the things I kept noticing throughout were moments of heroism that went unnoticed by those around the hero. It occurred to me that being a hero is not a permanent state, it is the action of a moment and after that moment has past the next decision needs to be made.

This is much like Moses and the people who followed him into the Exodus: one day they affirm their relationship to God and their determination to make it through the desert, the next they are dancing around a golden calf because they think they have been deserted by both God and Moses.

After seeing the 'Dunkirk', I stumbled upon the saying: Failure isn't fatal and success isn't final. Which seemed to encapsulate the feeling that the movie had evoked.

For some of Moses's followers failure to follow God was fatal. But in most cases in our lives failure isn't fatal, failure gives us a chance to change and make new decisions in the future.

The other half of the saying: 'success isn't final.' is a reminder that a moment of success is not permanent, we can fall just as easily as we rose. We see that in Noah-- he succeeded in bringing his family and the animals he was charged with saving safely through the flood-- only to experience disgrace and loss while rebuilding his world.

Jesus has several failures, both of his own faith in his ability to carry through his work and in his ability to communicate his vision of God's Kingdom to his own followers. However, he persists through those failures to redeem us all at the end through his sacrifice. He finds success and resurrection through his choice to persist and hold to God's plan for him.

All three of these figures had tough rows to hoe and none of them made it through their complicated relationships with God, their followers, and their own understanding of their lives without falling and failing. They had their moments of being the hero and doing the right thing at the right time. Then that moment passed and they had to make their next choice.

So it is with all of us. Hero or Failure is not a permanent status while we live. We will have moments when we rise to the occasion and moments when we fall on our face.

There may be times when we, like Jesus, are tempted to say that our hour has not yet come. It is work to take action, to find the jars and fill them with water. It would be easier to put things off to another day. Heroes become so by choosing to act, by making a choice to do. They may still fail but failing to act guarantees failure.

Noah, Moses, and Jesus, in their most heroic moments choose to act, to accept the job God had given them to do in the moment. They may have failed to be heroes in every moment but they got the bulk of their jobs done. Noah saved his family and the animals that God asked him to. Moses got his people out of Egypt and to the banks of the promised land. Jesus consented to death on the cross and brought God's grace to us all through his death and resurrection.

Our own role in God's creation is likely much less grand but no less important. Our own doubts and fears link us to these great ones who failed at times to be all they could be in the eyes of God. When we fall we can follow their example and try again to find our relationship with God and the right choice to make in the next moment.


All bible quotes are from either the NRSV text at Bible Gateway.

A pdf of the Book of Common Prayer can be found at: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/book_of_common_prayer.pdf