Last night I did something that I consider pretty significant. I voted for my church to affiliate with the United Church of Christ.
Though always feeling it was a smart move for the church, I had to struggle with the idea personally.
One conflict was the Reformed theology heritage of most of the denominations that merged to create the UCC. If you've read this blog for very long, you know my opinion of Reformed theology.
Then there was the family connection. The oldest of the denominations that formed the UCC were the Congregationalists who can trace their roots to the Plymouth Colony. I had eight ancestors on the Mayflower. But, then, also among my ancestors were those who left Massachusettes with Roger Williams to form the colony of Rhode Island and along with it the First Baptist Church. They left the Congregationalists and became Baptists because they were radicals, progressive, and wanted the freedom to practice the religion of their conscience.
Now, around 400 years later, I am making the reverse move. I have taken the first step back into the denomination that my ancestors left because I am a radical, progressive, and want the freedom to practice the religion of my conscience, which means that I am now more welcomed by the UCC than the Baptists.
As she concludes her research and argument in Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism, Bernadette J. Brooten writes:
Augustine brings us to a new stage in early Christian thinking about the erotic. Paul and Tertullian and Clement condemned same-sex love as unnatural, exhorting their followers to live according to an order of creation in which man is head of woman. These three thinkers, even though they differed in their evaluation of marriage, nevertheless all assumed the sanctity of marriages characterized by sexual intercourse between veiled, subordinate wives and husbands who instruct them. Augustine introduces a note of profound sadness into the discussion by claiming that original sin is passed on to a child at the moment of conception. Even a "natural," procreative sexual act between a subordinate wife and a husband who rules over her is deeply disturbed and characterized by sin, since humans cannot totally submit their sexual urges to their will. By asserting that sin imbues even a "natural" sexual act within the legal confines of marriage, Augustine subtly banishes "unnatural" sexual acts even further outside the realm of holiness.
Part of Brooten's argument, and that of many others, is that ancient arguments against same-sex relationships were based upon ancient conceptions of gender. An argument like hers stands as a rebuke to contemporary moderates who have already dismissed ancient conceptions of gender as not being normative for today (in issues related to gender equality in the church), yet remain vague on their positions of same-sex relationships.
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – OKC
23 October 2005
I first encountered the story of Les Miserables through the musical, which was a huge hit when I was in high school. While in Chicago for the National Forensic League National Speech Tournament, Donna Webster, my speech coach, and I went to see the musical one evening. Some friends of ours had extra tickets and invited us at the last moment. We got around and drove “hurriedly” into Chicago – it wasn’t so much “hurriedly” as it was a slow crawl due to the traffic. We got to the theatre late, missing the opening scenes. We walked in just in time to see Javert perform the song “Stars,” which has been a favourite song of mine ever since. Immediately, I fell in love with this musical and with the story it is based on.
Javert is the police inspector who spends his life hunting Jean Valjean. Javert is a law and order person, who feels that he is on a divinely ordered quest to enforce God’s laws. For Javert, right and wrong; duty and obedience, are clear-cut categories easily illuminated by divine reason. What is true and right are easily discernible, and Javert follows his convictions with absolute certainty.
In Victor Hugo’s story, Javert is the villain. The musical does a good job of making you pity him, because Javert’s certainty is a trap. He’s trapped within his worldview. Right and truth are clearly illuminated, but it is like a blinding light that obscures Javert’s vision to see the real world around him. Because he cannot see or grasp the complexities and ambiguities of real life, he lacks compassion and mercy. He cannot relate to real people in an authentic way because all he sees are objects governed by strict laws.
Finally, the trap springs shut on Javert. The second act of the musical is set during the attempted revolution of 1848. Javert disguises himself as one of the revolutionaries and attempts to undermine and betray them. When he is exposed as Inspector Javert, he ends up receiving mercy and compassion from Jean Valjean, the man he has hunted over many years. The trap springs at this moment of grace; Javert cannot handle it and, so, he kills himself.
In Javert’s worldview, suicide must have been an ultimate wrong. However, he feels forced to this great sacrilege because of the realization that his life’s work – all he has thought and believed and dedicated himself to – , this system of law and order, crumbles in response to genuine grace.
Javert dies when Valjean, the hunted man, shows compassion and mercy and allows Javert to live. This is because Valjean’s life has taken a different path. At the beginning of the story, Valjean is let out of prison after many years. He had been convicted of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s children and spent a long time in prison suffering for his crime. When he is released, however, he still isn’t free. Forever Valjean is tarred as a felon and will not be able to re-enter society. It is a clear picture of injustice.
Just out of prison, Valjean is desperate and poor. He has been pushed to extremes. He is a broken man who is struggling to figure out how to make in an unjust world where all the forces appear to be allied against him.
While traveling, he stays at the home of a kind bishop. This bishop feeds him and provides him shelter. I think that Valjean’s brokenness blinds him. Because of his experience of suffering and injustice, he cannot imagine true compassion anymore. I think he feels that he must resort to anything, even extreme measures, to ensure his own survival. So, Valjean steals the bishop’s silver and escapes into the night.
Valjean’s unlucky life continues. His is caught by constables. Valjean lies to them and tells them that the bishop gave the silver to him. The constables take Valjean back to the bishop’s home. They mockingly ask the bishop if he has given the silver to Valjean out of “Christian goodness.”
In the musical the bishop responds with these amazing words:
That is right
But my friend, you left so early
Surely something slipped your mind
You forgot I gave these also
Would you leave the best behind?
So, Messieurs, you may release him
For this man has spoken true.
I commend you for your duty
And God’s blessing go with you.
But remember this, my brother
See in this some higher plan.
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man.
By the witness of the martyrs
By the Passion and the Blood
God has raised you out of darkness
I have bought your soul for God!
This moment is the turning point in Valjean’s life. He repents of having stolen from the bishop and goes on to build a new life during which he increasingly learns to care for others. Then, in the crucial moment, the climax of the story, he is able to show compassion to Javert who has hunted him all his life. Les Miserables is the story of a conflict between genuine grace and those who pervert faith into legalism.
Most of the time, when I hear the bishop’s song, I cry. Why? Because I can’t get away from the fact that the way the bishop responds is the Christian response. The bishop demonstrates those very qualities we have been discussing the last few months. The bishop embodies the virtues necessary to live the Christian journey. In this character we see the sort of humility, generosity, forgiveness, hope, and love that shock us.
And this way of life is so directly contrasted with that of Inspector Javert. Javert may be a religious person, dedicated to his vision of Christianity. Yet, he is unforgiving, legalistic, lacking in compassion and mercy, incapable of seeing the real world. What is the difference between the faith of the bishop and the faith of the inspector? One upholds a faith based on rules, while the other upholds a faith based upon people.
This, I believe, is the essence of tonight’s Gospel.
The Pharisees come to Jesus, as they so often do, intending to trap him with their questions. They are sorta like Javert. They believe in these strict codes of discipline. Some of the Pharisees, especially as they are portrayed in Matthew’s Gospel, have lost the spirit of the Hebrew law. The great themes of the Hebrew story include blessing, liberation, sacrifice for others, covenant, justice, righteousness, etc. These are the themes we find in the ancient Genesis stories where generations struggle to understand blessing until they finally learn that one can only be blessed if one is willing to give of oneself in blessing other. Or in the great Exodus narrative where the oppressed are set free by a God who considers the least of these, the outcasts. A God who then sets out to create a different kind of community that can be a witness of redemption to all the world. These are the themes the prophets repeatedly return us to. It is there in the words of Micah and Isaiah who condemn the empty rituals of a people who have forgotten to show compassion to the poor and needy. Or in the great sermon of Amos who cries out for a time when “justice shall roll down like rivers, and righteousness like a ever-flowing stream.”
Some of these Pharisees have forgotten that the spiritual practices of the people are intended to open them to God and God’s working. The point of the law is to bring blessing upon this oppressed people and thereby enact God’s plan of redemption for all of creation. Instead many of these Pharisees have lowered the practices to such a legalistic understanding that life has become more about following the rules than the reality that the rules point toward. It is there in Jesus’ words of rebuke at one point that the Sabbath was created for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath. God’s work in this world is about people, not about a set a rules.
It is this reality, these grand themes of the Hebrew tradition, that Jesus reminds them of in this interchange. The Pharisees, these lovers of rules, come asking Jesus, what is the greatest rule? What commandment deserves our greatest obedience?
And Jesus answers in a way that upends a worldview based upon legalism. The most important rule is to love. To love God and to love one another as oneself. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
See, these are the fundamentals. If you’re going to be a genuine fundamentalist, then love ought to become your most important rule.
And isn’t this the basic truth that we learn early in life? For most of us growing up in church, going to Sunday school, learning from those saints who taught us the Christian faith, the first thing we learned is love. God is love. Love your neighbor. Love your parents. All the first stories you learn are stories of love and acceptance.
But something happens along the way. The church began to teach us to exclude people, to look on them differently. People of a different religion or even a different denomination. Maybe for some of you the churches of your youth taught you to look differently at people of another race. And some of the people we were taught to treat differently we finally realized that we were a part of that group. What then should we make of this love idea? We struggled to understand how we were to love ourselves, when for years we had been taught that maybe God’s love didn’t include people like us. The way that was most natural for us to love another person was said to be “unnatural;” our form of love was a perversion. And how could we love a God who we were told didn’t love us?
That we are here is a testimony that in some fashion we overcame these messages of hate. Maybe the fundamentals had taken deep root in us. Maybe we finally realized that the lessons we first learned were the right ones and that the church was wrong about all that other stuff it added on that obscured the basic teachings. Probably we finally came to the realization that our relationship with God, our faith, wasn’t about following a bunch of rules, but was about being an authentic person and being in authentic relationships with other people.
Because the funny thing is that the greatest rule, isn’t even a rule at all. It is a relationship. Love, we are told. Be in genuine, authentic relationships. With yourself, with others, and with God. And give it everything you are – heart, soul, mind, and body. Become a person who overflows with love. Give abundantly of yourself.
The great truth here is that all these loves come together. You cannot authentically and genuinely love yourself unless you giving of yourself to others. Because when we share ourselves with others, we are drawn outside of the narrow confines of self-interest and invited to see a wider world teeming with the abundance of God’s creation. This is the life lived with overwhelming generosity and it is the path to true blessing.
And you can’t authentically and genuinely love others unless you love yourself. Only when you can accept yourself for who you are, be honest with yourself, forgive yourself, allow yourself to be fully free – only then are you a person truly able to love other people. Only then can you give of your whole self, because only then is your whole self free to give.
This, my friends, is how we love God. We love God by loving ourselves and other people and the totality of God’s creation. Jesus himself said it, “when you have done it unto the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you have done it unto me.”
In this Gospel text Jesus is declaring the wisdom of the ages. It summarizes the entire Hebrew story. It exemplifies the greatest of the Christian tradition. And it is even present in every major faith around the world that the basic principle is love. What Jesus is saying to these Pharisees and the Pharisees in every place and time is “it is not in the strict observance of the rules.” It is found in love, authentic genuine relationships, that freedom of sharing ourselves completely with one another.
We are travelers on a journey together. A journey of boldly proclaiming God’s good news to a world in need. A journey that requires us here and now to live God’s way. A journey that can only be faithfully completed if we learn how to interact with other people and live a life of extravagant generosity and grace. The journey of a community whose basic rule is that we are united in our diversity. A journey that despite whatever difficulties can be filled with joy and peace. A journey that begins and ends and is overwhelmed by one basic idea – this is a journey of love.
“. . . for anxiety is invariably the result of a certain mode of being implicated in the game, of being caught by the game, of being as it were at stake in the game from the outset.” – Jacques Derrida
There is the occasional (very occasional) interesting sentence or two. But, Derrida’s Writing and Difference was a slog that just didn’t seem worth it.
In Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, you learn to experience American history as a series of absurdities, contradictions, ironies, and paradoxes.
The wagonloads of wounded Sioux (four men and forty-seven women and children) reached Pine Ridge after dark. Because all available barracks were filled with soldiers, they were left lying in the open wagons in the bitter cold while an inept Army officer searched for shelter. Finally an Episcopal mission was opened, the benches taken out, and hay scattered over the rough flooring.
It was the fourth day after Christmas in the Year of Our Lord 1890. When the first torn and bleeding bodies were carried into the candlelit church, those who were conscious could see Christmas greenery hanging from the open rafters. Across the chancel front above the pulpit was strung a crudely lettered banner: PEACE ON EARTH, GOOD WILL TO MEN.
Throw in a little work reading while on vacation, N. T. Wright’s For All the Saints?, preparing for my November sermons.
“War, whose highest purpose was the creation of clarity where none existed, the noble clarity of victory and defeat, had solved nothing.”
In Shalimar the Clown, Salman Rushdie gives us some perspective of radical Islam seen through the lens of Kashmir. Maybe the book is an appraisal of contemporary humanity’s ability to destroy beauty. Though he never quotes it outright (he comes close twice), I felt that a line from the Bhagavad-Gita, most famously quoted by J. Robert Oppenheimer, actually lay behind the entire novel: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” In this spirit, an Indian army officer has these thoughts:
Elasticnagar was unpopular, the colonel knew that, but unpopularity was illegal. The legal position was that the Indian military presence in Kashmir had the full support of the population, and to say otherwise was to break the law. To break the law was to be a criminal and criminals were not to be tolerated and it was right to come down on them heavily with the full panoply of the law and with hobnailed boots and lathi sticks as well. The key to understanding this position was the word integral and its associated concepts. Elasticnagar was integral to the Indian effort and the Indian effort was to preserve the integrity of the nation. Integrity was a quality to be honored and an attack on the integrity of the nation was an attack on its honor and was not to be tolerated. Therefore Elasticnagar was to be honored and all other attitudes were dishonorable and consequently illegal. Kashmir was an integral part of India. An integer was a whole and India was an integer and fractions were illegal. Fractions caused fractures in the integer and were thus not integral. Not to accept this was to lack integrity and implicitly or explicitly to question the unquestionable integrity of those who did accept it. Not to accept this was latently or patently to favor disintegration. This was subversive. Subversion leading to disintegration was not to be tolerated and it was right to come down on it heavily whether it was of the over or covert kind. The legally compulsory and enforceable popularity of Elasticnagar was thus a matter of integrity, pure and simple, even if the truth was that Elasticnagar was unpopular. When the truth and integrity conflicted it was integrity that had to be given precedence. Not even the truth could be permitted to dishonor the nation. Therefore Elasticnagar was popular even thought it was not popular. It was a simple enough matter to understand.
On the drive home I read Part One: Millennium Approaches of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. If you’ve been a reader of this blog for any length of time, then you know the significance of the film version to MyQuest. These phrases are like the contours of a path that is my path.
Finally, in this list of books I completed just before or on vacation, I add one that I’ve only begun, Christopher Isherwood’s Christopher and His Kind. This is Isherwood’s memoir from 1976 that retells the stories he had told in many of his earlier novels and memoirs, like Goodbye to Berlin, the source of the musical Cabaret. In the earlier accounts, Isherwood left his homosexuality vague, something that the aware reader would pick up, but it was never explicit. The septuagenarian finally feels free to recount his real life story. Which makes for an odd book. He spends so much of it quoting from the older accounts and correcting them, giving the real names of the “fictional characters.” In the process there is a muddle. “Isherwood” becomes the name used to refer to the “Christopher Isherwood” who appeared as a character in the novels. “Christopher” refers to the author. He almost always refers to himself in the second person. Sometimes by “Christopher” he means the Christopher Isherwood of the 1930’s whose story is being recounted. Sometimes he means the Christopher Isherwood of the 1970’s who is trying to remember and reconstruct and reappraise the earlier Christopher. So, you get an odd paragraph such as this one:
In the novel, it seems to be implied that what Bernhard is hiding is a romantic attachment to “Isherwood.” The shared trip to China which Bernhard proposes is made to sound like an elopement. Whether Wilfrid [Bernhard the character’s real name] was or wasn’t homosexual is neither here nor there. Of one thing I am certain, he wasn’t in love with Christopher. I therefore find the hint contained in the novel offensive, vague as it is, and I am embarrassed to know that Wilfrid read it.
So, what you’ve got is these various layers of personality/character/identity/memory/history/commentary that play upon one another. What are the thoughts remembered from the thirties and what are the thoughts of the seventies? I find myself not liking Christopher Isherwood (his name dropping is most annoying), but I’m confused as to whether I dislike the young man or the old man or the man in his totality. Maybe the text even raises the question as to what can meaningfully be said about identity having a sense of totality?
Awake at 3 a.m. I started picturing him. He’s always lying in bed on his back, with one arm folded up under his head. He’s always talking about something, looking up at the ceiling. I’m always nestled against his side, with my head resting on his right shoulder and my right arm at an angle lying across his chest.
He doesn’t have any particular look. Friends ask me all the time what my “type” is. I always respond that I don’t know that I have a type; more I know what I don’t like.
Once I said that it mattered that I knew what his favourite novel was and, more importantly, understood why. That this mattered more than how we went about our relationships – our attitudes, responses, and expectations. At the time I felt all those things, those differences, could be discussed and worked out. The other was the sort of deep connection that is a rarity.
Sounds silly now.
Now I realize that this is one of the necessary things – how you relate to someone you love. It can’t all be discussed and worked out; either you have similar approaches or you don’t. Alongside your outlook on life and what centers and grounds you, this is essential. That in these you find a depth of connection whose meaning surpasses the rarity of the other connection.
This is the process. The process of broadening and narrowing your attraction as you experience another person. And another. And another.
So there are the essential things about him, at least the essential things at this point in my story. Then there are the things that aren’t necessary, but that you’d like for him to be, say, do, think, like, want. Here’s the fun of the new person who expands your list, who opens you up to new experiences – “I wouldn’t have put that on my list, but I really like it.”
My mind rambles around the attributes, building the list. I do like this; I don’t like that. Yet, it always comes back to the image. We lie there and he’s talking about something that interests him. And I’m content, absorbed in this moment, in him.
Though I have very vivid dreams, it is only occasionally. The sort of dreams that you remember upon awaking. The sort of dreams that Descartes is talking about in the First Meditation. Some are the dreams that are so real and realistic that you have to consciously remember later that you haven't had the conversations or experiences with the real-life counterparts of the characters in the dream. Others are the ones that are so real and vivid yet surrealistic, magically realistic, or fantastically realistic (pick your genre). The ones where time is fluid, space is relative, characters emerge and merge and change, and plot is a convention of a lesser reality.
The occasions of such dreams should be cherished, for their very occasionality (if such a term exists. "Occasionalism" would suggest a philosophical dead-end I have no desire to take.). How incredible, then, to have such dreams three consecutive nights.
In the shower, pondering this wondrous experience, I wondered the cause. Unfamiliar setting is the likely simple and straightforward answer, but upromising because uninteresting. Whitehead said, "It is more important that something be interesting than true" (though probably not the precise wording, it is how the quote plays in my memory).
Maybe it was the precise location. New Mexico. The Santa Fe area. An area rich in dream imagery and imagination. A mixture of cultures and their spiritualities. A place where you can drive into a small town nestled deep in the hills ringed by mountains to visit a centuries-old little chapel famed for healing powers and encounter the pre-Christian practices and images whose devotees probably view the nuances (and absurdities?) of European theology with the same mystery that you do their mysteriousness.
Or maybe it is reading Salman Rushdie in such a place.
Three nights, lying in bed, filling one's head with the images of Kashmir. The rich characters that only come from Rushdie's pen. Characters who emerge and merge and change. Whose characters are their plots and whose plots are their characters. Described with that language that seems to absorb a little bit of everything and cast it back in images that can't be realistic but, yet, perfectly capture the author's meaning. There is always that sense of enigma, of not being quite certain what is going on. Could it be?
There hasn't been much to write about the last few days. Plus, I didn't preach Sunday night, so there is no sermon to post.
Tomorrow, Mom, Revis, Dorothy (Revis' mom), and I are headed to Santa Fe and will be coming back on Saturday. So, this will probably be a really lite week at MyQuest unless something happens today that requires my commentary!
by Frederico Garcia Lorca
Was never born, never,
but could burst into life.
Every moment it's
Every moment it opens new
Over here! over there!
See my multiple bodies
passing through pueblos
or asleep in the ocean?
Everything open! Locks
to fit every key.
But the sun & moon
lose & delude us.
And under our feet
the highways are tangled.
Here I'll mull over all
I once could have been.
God or beggar,
water or old marguerite.
My multiple paths
now form this enormous rose
encircling my body.
Like an impossible map
the garden of the possible
every moment is
Was never born, never,
but could burst into life.
It has been a long time since I entertained my bored or tired self by looking at all the referrals to my website. The fun part is the search words and phrases that people use. I was surprised to learn that apparently my site is listed first and second in response to the above query. Though I've never been to Massachusettes. And surely haven't written about them (though all those words appear somewhere in the archives of my site!).