Doubting Thomas

Religion, for me, has always been an exercise in pain management.

And faith has always been a struggle.

My friends and family all must have the spiritual gift of patience, seeing how they’ve walked with me through each new crisis of faith and theological discovery: Evangelical, Charismatic, Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Universalist, Liberal, Benedictine… it seems like I’m always dipping my toes into another tributary of the great Christian river. I’ve never quite felt at home.

As such, I feel like today is a holiday for Christians like me: the Feast of St. Thomas. Thomas, colloquially referred to as ‘Doubting Thomas’, is famous for his struggle with faith after the resurrection: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

But just as surely as he lagged behind his fellow apostles in believing the truth of the resurrection, he also charged ahead of them when it came to confessing the divinity of Christ: he was the first to address Jesus as “My Lord and my God!”

In my experience, a faith that is open to struggle often ends up being deeper and wider than a faith that simply accepts what it is given without question. I wonder whether Thomas would have had his insight into Christ’s divinity had it not been for his struggle with Christ’s resurrection?

For people like Thomas and me, faith is always an open-hearted struggle, not because we are stiff-necked unbelievers, but because we so desperately want to see Jesus.

What Do You Mean by Anglo-Catholic?

What Do You Mean by Anglo-Catholic?

J. Barrett Lee:

Even though, as a Presbyterian, I do not technically qualify for the ‘Anglo’ part of ‘Anglo-Catholic’, the approach to Christianity described in this article pretty closely resembles what I believe. I would call myself ‘Reformed Catholic’ if the term wasn’t already used by another denomination. Most of the time, I settle for saying that I’m ‘catholic with a little c’…

Originally posted on The Curate's Corner:

One of the parishioners at my parish came into my office a week or so ago and asked me this question.  IN the process of working on moving tables in our parish hall, I mentioned to him that I considered myself an Anglo-Catholic.  Coming from a Presbyterian background, he had never heard this term and I bumbled through a quick history lesson, but came to these points, which are so much more eloquently put than I did in that moment:

What is Anglo-Catholicism?
A Response in Six Parts

by the Revd John D. Alexander, SSC
Rector of S Stephen’s Church, Providence, Rhode Island
formerly of the Church of the Ascension, Staten Island, New York

1. A High View of God. Anglo-Catholic worship at its best cultivates a sense of reverence, awe, and mystery in the presence of the Holy One before whom even the angels in heaven veil their faces.

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Heart to Heart

We modern folks, Protestants in particular, have a hard time conceiving of ministry that doesn’t somehow involve an exchange of information. We talk a lot. Many words.

We ask for prayer requests and affirmations of faith. We made the sermon the central feature of the worship event. We analyze hymns based on their lyrical content. Especially since God cannot be seen directly with the eyes, we are tempted to reduce Christian faith to exchanging the right kind of information in the right way.

Let me be as clear as possible: I have come to believe that we have made a vital error in this. Faith and ministry are adamantly not primarily about the exchange of information.

I experienced this firsthand in a new way last spring when I visited St. Gregory’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Three Rivers, Michigan. During my week there, I shared that space with the monks who live there year-round and with several other visitors: an Anglican priest, a Quaker pastor, a woman going through a difficult life transition, two young women in campus ministry, a group of men on retreat from a nearby Episcopal church, and a rabbi in the throes of a psychotic episode.

Each of us had our own reasons for being there, but what I experienced most deeply was the sense of togetherness and connection that emerged, not from our conversations, but primarily through the space shared in silence. We got to know each other while knowing very little about each other. This was intimacy minus the exchange of information. It runs completely counter to the style of relational building that our culture has trained us to pursue (which could be described as the exchange of information without intimacy).

There is a similar kind of ministry that grows among us at North Presbyterian Church, where I serve as pastor. Most of the people we do ministry with have some kind of serious, chronic mental illness. Some of our people are barely verbal in their cognitive expression. I stand up to preach every Sunday, but it’s not the main event of the service. My sermon could be good or bad, short or long, and the ideas would still go over the heads of several people in the congregation. They don’t come for the sermon.

Instead, they come to sing their hearts out (loudly and off-key), to share a hug and a smile (maybe the only one they’ll get all week), to voice their weekly joys and concerns in words that are sometimes unintelligible (but known to God in prayer), to receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist (which we celebrate weekly, a rarity among Presbyterians).

Our liturgy is messy and rowdy: quite the opposite of Benedictine silence and Presbyterian “decency and order.”

Our worship and ministry at North is not about the exchange of information, but the intimate connection of heart to heart in the gospel. It happens in music and touch, in bread and wine.

The following video illustrates this beautifully. While none of our members are as impaired as Ms. Wilson, the principle of ministry is the same. St. Francis of Assisi is thought to have said, “Preach the gospel always; use words when necessary.” This video shows how it’s done:

Practicing Pluralism (or, Why Your Brain Won’t Fall Out if You’re Open-Minded)

“Don’t be so open-minded that your brain falls out.”

I’ve had many people toss this pithy little turn of phrase in my direction many times over the years. Not once has one of them ever actually explained what they mean by it. Here’s how their message comes across:

  1. “People who disagree with me are stupid.”
  2. “I think I’m witty.”

If one were to give the benefit of the doubt to another who uses this phrase, one could say that they are expressing their distaste for relativism in religious truth, ethics, etc.

Relativism is the philosophical position that there is no absolute truth to a given matter. Therefore, what is true (or right) for one person is not necessarily true (or right) for another. Therefore one person (or culture) cannot pass judgment on another person’s (or culture’s) beliefs or ethics. Relativism is a cop-out and easily debunked.

Philosophically speaking, relativism is “hoist with its own petard” (a phrase that appears in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, among other places). A petard is an antiquated explosive weapon, a kind precursor to the grenade or landmine. If a petard were to detonate in the face of the one setting it, that soldier was said to be “hoist with his own petard” or “destroyed by his own weapon.”

Such is the fate of relativism as a philosophical theory: It is self-contradictory, refuted by its own argument, hoist with its own petard.

If one claims that there is no absolute truth in religion or morality, then one must hold this belief to the exclusion of all other beliefs. To the extent that relativists hold themselves to be correct in their relativism, they are absolutists. This is a logical contradiction.

Similarly, if one holds that all perspectives are equally valid and there is no ultimate truth (as relativists do), then they must necessarily regard absolutism as a philosophical perspective of equal value alongside their relativism. This too is a logical contradiction.

This is why we say that relativism is “hoist with its own petard.” It contradicts itself and falls apart under the weight of its own argument.

Relativism is a cop-out. It’s a way of ending dialogue when one party is sick and tired of debate over a particular issue. It could be argued that those who say “Don’t be so open-minded that your brain falls out” are actually encouraging people to stay engaged in the process of critical thinking, rather than take the easy way out (i.e. adopt relativism as a philosophically weak non-position).

If this were what folks meant by “Don’t be so open-minded that your brain falls out,” then I would heartily agree. However, I’ve noticed the opposite to be true. In my experience, those who use this phrase are falling into a similar trap as relativists: They are refusing to engage in the process of critical thinking. They are unwilling to consider viewpoints other than their own and are derisive of those who do. In sense it is their own brains that are “falling out” (or “being stifled”) due to minds that are too closed to engage in rigorous debate. Ironically, they fall into the same hole as relativists, but from the opposite side.

A further mistake they often make is their failure to distinguish between relativism and pluralism. We’ve already defined relativism as the position that there is no absolute truth, therefore what is true for one person is not necessarily true for another. A robust pluralism, on the other hand, states that there is an ultimate truth, but it cannot be fully known by one person or captured by a single perspective.

Take the parable of the elephant, as told by Ramakrishna Paramahamsa:

A number of blind men came to an elephant. Somebody told them that it was an elephant. The blind men asked, ‘What is the elephant like?’ and they began to touch its body. One of them said: ‘It is like a pillar.’ This blind man had only touched its leg. Another man said, ‘The elephant is like a husking basket.’ This person had only touched its ears. Similarly, he who touched its trunk or its belly talked of it differently. In the same way, he who has seen the Lord in a particular way limits the Lord to that alone and thinks that He is nothing else.

Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blind_men_and_an_elephant

The relativist would say that there is no elephant and each blind man was equal to his counterparts in accuracy. The pluralist would say that the elephant is real and its reality is greater than each blind man’s individual experience.

Another way I have described pluralism to my students in the past is to imagine a statue illuminated by spotlights. A light placed on one side of the statue will illuminate some features while leaving others in shadow. A light placed on the otherside will have an opposite effect. The relativist would say that there is no statue. A reductionist might limit discussion to those parts of the statue that are illuminated by both lights (e.g. those who reduce conversations about religion to discussion of the “golden rule”, an ethical principle that appears in multiple religious traditions). Pluralists, on the other hand, see the statue and take note of what is illuminated, where the lights overlap, and what parts remain in shadow.

Pluralism is the virtue of humility, applied to the life of the mind. Practicing pluralism requires of us a high degree of empathy and goodwill for one’s interlocutors. It requires that we remain critically engaged with one another and honest with ourselves. Being a pluralist is a moral commitment to love one’s intellectual neighbors as oneself. Being an open-minded pluralist, in this sense, is the exact opposite of one’s brain falling out. I would daresay it is the human mind at its best.

Including and Transcending

Mark 1:1-8, NRSV

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Have you ever experienced yourself (or some part of your life) as completely and totally unacceptable? Something that, if it were known publicly, would cause you so much shame that you’d probably just go ahead and spend the rest of your life hiding under your bed, eating Cheetos? I think we all do.

We all have some parts of our life that we think about and go, “If anyone ever knew about this, they’d never speak to me again!”

A lot of the time, we don’t even like to think privately about the fact that these parts of ourselves exist.

And, even though we believe theologically that God knows everything and God’s love is unconditional, a part of us is still terrified that even God would look away in from us in disgust if such a thing became known.

And so we hide… whether we’re under the bed eating Cheetos or covering ourselves with fig leaves like Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis, we ashamed and afraid of being exposed, so we hide these parts of our lives.

Looking at our gospel text this morning, the narrator (who is named ‘Mark’ by tradition) opens his story with the announcement that this is “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

But the story is not just Jesus’ story alone: Right here, at the beginning, the narrator goes to great lengths to demonstrate how the story of the gospel includes parts of all different stories.

First of all, there is the Jewish story. This is not surprising, especially since Jesus and his earliest followers were all Jewish. So, it makes perfect sense that the story of Jesus would have a particularly Jewish feel to it: Jewish memories of the past, Jewish hopes of the future.

We can see Mark intentionally including those elements in the way he tells Jesus’ story:

For example, there is his use of the word Christ. Contrary to popular opinion, Christ is not Jesus’ last name. Christ (Christos in Greek) is a Greek word that translates the Hebrew word Mashiach (Messiah). The English translation of both of these words is Anointed. It refers to a part of the ritual for crowning kings in ancient Israel when a prophet or a priest would pour olive oil on the head of the new king. This anointing was a sign that the person in question was God’s choice as leader. In Jesus’ time, this idea had developed into a national hope for a coming king who would liberate the Jewish people from occupation by the Romans. So, by calling Jesus the Anointed (i.e. Christ, Messiah), Mark is including the Jewish story (with all of its memories and hopes) in Jesus’ story.

There’s another way that Mark makes this connection:

It’s not with Jesus himself, but with this other important figure: John the Baptist. When Mark introduces John, he spends a great deal of time describing what John is wearing – “Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.”

These are all very important visual cues that Mark is giving his readers, but we 21st century people are likely to miss them, since we’re not from the same culture as Mark’s readers. However, we can get an idea of what he is talking about: If I were to use visual cues to describe a fat man in a red suit coming down a chimney, who do you think I would be talking about? Santa Claus!

We recognize those visual cues because they are deeply embedded in our own culture. In the same way, Mark is giving his audience visual cues about John the Baptist by describing what he is wearing. When he says that John is “clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and eating locusts and wild honey,” people in his culture would immediately recognize that as the prophet Elijah, whose return to earth was supposed to foreshadow the coming of the Messiah, God’s anointed king.

Mark reinforces this idea by quoting a verse from the book of the Jewish prophet Malachi:

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way.”

That’s all that Mark quotes, but if we kept reading in the book of Malachi, we would quickly come to this verse in the same section – “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.”

Again, we encounter this idea of Elijah preparing the way for the Messiah, God’s anointed king. Between these visual and verbal cues, Mark is actually laying it on pretty thick that John the Baptist is Elijah, so when John says, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me,” Jewish readers would get really excited, because that means that the promised Messiah is about to come. And we, as Christians, believe that’s exactly what happened when Jesus appeared on the scene.

So again, Mark is including these Jewish memories and hopes in his presentation of the Christian gospel. The Jewish story is part of Jesus’ story.

But wait, there’s more:

Mark doesn’t just include the Jewish story in Jesus’ story, he includes the Roman story as well. This is really surprising. After all, the Romans were pagans who didn’t worship Israel’s God at all. Also, they were foreigners: an invading army that was occupying the lands of Judea and Galilee. One would certainly not expect the story of the Jewish Messiah to also include the memories and hopes of pagan foreigners, but it does.

Mark begins Jesus’ story by calling it “the good news” (euangelion), which is also where we get the word “gospel” from. The term was not initially a religious term, but a Roman political one. An euangelion was an imperial proclamation that a royal child had been born, that a new emperor had ascended the throne, or that Caesar was victorious over his enemies.

Also, Mark refers to Jesus with the title Son of God. These days, we’re used to that title being applied to Jesus, but in Roman times, it was a title reserved for Caesar alone. By using the terms euangelion and Son of God, Mark is intentionally including elements of the Roman story in Jesus’ story. He’s saying that the gospel of Jesus Christ is not just for the Jews; it’s good news for the whole world.

However, even as the gospel of Jesus includes elements from these other Jewish and Roman stories, it also transcends them.

First of all, using Roman imperial images to refer to Jesus sets him up as another authority figure who will compete with the power of Rome. When the early Christians proclaimed, “Jesus is Lord!” they were making the dangerous and subversive implication that “Caesar is not.” That, to a large degree, is why the Roman Empire perceived Christians as a threat to national security and subsequently hunted and executed them.

The Caesars of Rome had a particular agenda that they were advancing: the Pax Romana. Their goal was to achieve world peace through conquest. They would impose Roman order over the face of the entire world under the leadership of Caesar. The dangerous claim of Christians is that they would achieve the same goal, but Jesus (not Caesar) would be the head of the global household. Also, the Roman vision was “peace through conquest” but the Christian vision was “conquest through peace.” The harmony of creation would be restored, not by imposing order from without, but by nurturing peace within. The Pax Christi (Peace of Christ) reigns in the hearts and minds of Jesus’ disciples by the power of God’s love, not by the power of the sword. The story of Jesus includes, but also transcends, the Roman story.

In the same way, the story of Jesus includes, but also transcends the Jewish story. The Jewish idea of the coming Messiah was that of a revolutionary leader who wields political and military power to liberate the Jewish homeland from foreign occupation and usher in a Jewish golden age of national security, prosperity, and fidelity to the Torah of Moses.

But the gospel of Jesus is much bigger than that. The gospel of Jesus is not just a Jewish story; it includes the Gentiles and all the nations of the world (even the Romans). So, just as it was with the Roman story, the story of Jesus includes, but also transcends, the Jewish story.

When it comes to our lives, I think the same principle applies. The Christian gospel includes, but also transcends our personal stories.

Nothing is left out: all that you have, all that you are, everything that has ever happened to you, and everything you’ve made happen is part of what God is doing in your life.

This is a message of total acceptance. You are loved and accepted, radically and unconditionally, by God. God loves you, not just in spite of your mistakes, faults, character flaws, quirks, and wounds, but with them. God loves you, just as you are. Full stop. No exceptions. God’s love for you is an act of free, radical, and sovereign grace. There’s nothing we can do to earn it or lose it. As the theologian Paul Tillich was fond of saying, “All you can do is accept that you are accepted.”

Like you hear me say every week: God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it. This is a powerful truth (which is why I make a point of saying it every week). If we were to let the significance of this truth sink into our souls, it would change the way we live our lives. I dare say that it would even change the world.

The story of Jesus’ work in your life includes all parts of your own personal story. Nothing is left out. Christ looks at every part of your life (no matter how bad) and says, “I can work with that!” Nothing ends up on the cutting room floor, as it were. Total acceptance. Total inclusion.

And just like the Roman story and the Jewish story, even as every element of our personal stories are included in the story of the gospel in our lives, every element of our personal story is also transcended.

Nothing is left out. Just as Christ looks at every part of your life (no matter how bad) and says, “I can work with that,” Christ also looks at every part of your life (no matter how good) and says, “Let’s work on that.”

God loves us just as we are, and loves us too much to let us stay that way. When I was a kid, there were recruitment videos for the U.S. Army that called soldiers to “Be all that you can be.” But Christ is calling us to be more than that.

One of my favorite hymns in our new hymnal is “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go.” The second verse of that hymn addresses this subject of transcendence and transformation directly:

O Light that followest all my way, I yield my flickering torch to thee;
my heart restores its borrowed ray, that in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
may brighter, fairer be.

By including, but also transcending, all the various elements of our personal stories, Christ is calling us to a destiny that is bigger and more magnificent than we can possibly imagine. Just like the Transformers, there is “more” to us “than meets the eye.” Jesus is calling us up into that “more.”

What does it look like? Well, the answer is complicated.

We know that each person is unique. We believe that each person is made in the image of God. Therefore, it stands to reason that each person will reflect the image of God in their own unique way.

Christ is calling you to be more than you are now, but never calls you to be what you are not. God’s calling on your life will not look exactly like God’s calling on someone else’s life. Whatever you’re called to be, you’re not called to be exactly like them.

It’s like stained-glass windows in a church: each one is different from all the others; each one is hand-crafted by a master artist. But when the sunlight shines through them, it is the light of the one and only sun.

In the same way, our lives and callings in Christ will look very different from one another. We come with our own unique gifts and struggles. When the light shines through us, it shines differently, but it is the one Light of Christ: including and transcending all the various parts of our personal stories and making them part of the one Great Story: the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Getting Serious About Racism

In the midst of public outcry over the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, a lot of white folks have accused their African American neighbors of ‘being oversensitive’ or ‘playing the race card’. Part of us would like to believe that ‘we’re beyond all that now’ because of the Civil Rights movement. White people want to think: “We used to be racist, but then Dr. King came along and changed our minds with his ‘I Have a Dream’ address.”

Our unconscious script goes something like this: “Racists are bad people. I am not a bad person. Therefore, I am not racist.”

We justify this argument by saying things like:

  • “I have no problem with black people.”
  • “I even have friends who are black.”
  • “I’m color-blind.”
  • “I don’t see race.”

We have achieved a general consensus in North American culture that conscious discrimination based on race is morally wrong. Relatively few people are proud of being labeled ‘racist.’ However, that doesn’t mean we’re ‘over racism’. Despite claims to color-blindness, the following video paints a sobering picture:

The most insidious aspect of racism is not what we choose to believe, but how our unconscious assumptions shape the way we act without our realizing it. If we want this reality to change, we white folks have some work to do.

1. Confession.

First of all, we need to undertake that good old spiritual discipline of repentance: We need to confess our sins. We should never let the words ‘I’m not racist’ escape our lips because the truth is that we are racist. I made my first attempt at this confession last year in the following post on this blog:

I Am Racist

Read it and try writing your own. Get honest with God and your neighbor. Confession is good for the soul. Without it, we are little more than hypocrites and ‘whitewashed tombs’ as Jesus said. What we have now is a society where it’s okay to be racist, so long as we don’t say we’re racist.

2. Education.

We white folks need to be more knowledgeable about the truth of American society seen through the eyes of our African American brothers and sisters. I recommend the following books as a very basic starting point:

Race Matters by Cornel West

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

3. Proximity.

If you’re serious about fighting racism, you need to ally yourself with others who do the same. Join your local chapter of the NAACP. It’s not enough just to march in protest rallies. Go to meetings, serve on committees.

It’s also not enough to simply “have a black friend.” How about having some part of your week when you are the only white person in the room? Listen without passing judgment. When you hear the outcry against injustice, don’t close your ears. Don’t try to justify yourself or dismiss the grievances of the oppressed. Even if you’re not sure you agree with what is being said, show up and listen with an open mind. Resist the urge to put your two cents in before you’ve earned the right to be heard. Your silence in listening will speak louder than any words you might say.