Who Is My Neighbor?

Posted: August 8th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Who Is My Neighbor?

But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29)

I can’t claim to have really followed the Chick-Fil-A debacle. I’m not the sort who pays a lot of attention to boycotts or their opposite. And, given that much of my family has celiac disease, we don’t really frequent any sort of fast food establishment. Nevertheless, I have a twitter account and I read quite a few blogs, so I naturally heard some of the back and forth. Throughout it all the expert in the Jewish law’s question to Jesus has been running through my mind. Clearly, from his earlier answer, the man understood that Jesus was teaching that we could only love God to the extent that we are willing to love our neighbor as ourselves. It wasn’t a love God first and then as a secondary command love others. Rather, it was one command intertwined and inseparable.

Almost everyone, Christian or not, has heard about Jesus’ parable in response. We even have “Good Samaritan” laws named after it. And over the years, I’ve heard a lot of discussion about that parable. Much of it has been good and highlighted important aspects about human interactions. But I think most of what I’ve heard over the years has missed one of the key aspects of the parable.

As a response to the lawyer’s question, the parable of the Good Samaritan reads to me like a sharp rebuke. Jesus is telling the lawyer that he’s asking the wrong question for the wrong reasons. When we ask, “Who is my neighbor?” we are all in truth asking who we don’t have to love. And we are doing so by trying to group people into categories. And in response to that question, Jesus tells a story of a man who encounters a stranger who needs him — a stranger who in other circumstances probably would have despised and avoided the Samaritan — and who without hesitation or condition meets the needs of that stranger.

Whenever we ask “Who is my neighbor?” we have already stepped away from the way of life onto the way of death. The question itself indicates we want the escape clause. We want to know who we are allowed to hate. Oh, we dress it up and rationalize it in all sorts of ways; some of them are even pretty convincing.

Jesus will have none of it, though.

So who are really trying to fool? Ourselves? Are we simply attempting to justify our refusal to follow Jesus, the one we often falsely call “Lord“?

This incident is just one of many, of course. We see it every time Christians other Muslims. (Has anyone ever gotten one of those fear-mongering emails about Muslims trying to turn America into an Islamic state under sharia law from anyone other than a Christian?) We see it when a white church refuses to allow the scheduled wedding of a black couple on its premises. And we see it in this most recent dust-up, which has never really been about fast food chicken nuggets and sandwiches.

Jesus tells us in the parable the question we should instead be asking:

Who will be my neighbor today?

Out of those I know, those I will meet, or the strangers whose paths will cross mine, who will need me today? Who can I serve? Who can I help, even if only by my presence and support? Who will I be given the opportunity to love today?

Because ultimately it’s not about groups. It’s not about categories. It’s not even about generic statements that we should somehow abstractly love everyone (though that’s better than abstractly hating them, I suppose). Instead it’s about loving the individual human beings, each beloved by God, who need our love today. And the moment we ask who we have to love and who we don’t, we’ve turned our backs on Jesus. It’s really as simple and as hard as that.

And please don’t misunderstand me. I understand how hard it is. There are individuals I struggle not to hate, much less love. And there are groups (like the modern nativistic, racist GOP element) I want to other as a group, to make into a group I’m excused from loving. Like everyone else, I want to love those who love me and hate those who hate me. Christianity is hard. If anyone ever told you it was easy, they lied. But in the long run, it’s much harder, or at least more destructive, to hate.

Richard Beck has a follow-up to an earlier post in which evidence seems to show that evangelicalism is actually structured to allowed people to perceive themselves as more loving when in reality, even on a self-assessment, according to specific criteria members of that group actually aren’t more loving at all.

Fred Rogers really had it right, I think. Won’t you be my neighbor?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8w9xk4hUKoQ

Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 43

Posted: May 29th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 43

90.  If you harbor rancor against anybody, pray for him and you will prevent the passion from being aroused; for by means of prayer you will separate your resentment from the thought of the wrong he has done you. When you have become loving and compassionate towards him, you will wipe the passion completely from your soul. If somebody regards you with rancor, be pleasant to him, be humble and agreeable in his company, and you will deliver him from his passion.

This prescription for dealing with rancor in yourself or directed at you echoes the New Testament, of course, but the reality remains that as often as we hear, we still don’t do it. It’s hard to pray for those who have wronged us. And it’s hard to be pleasant, humble, and agreeable when resentment is directed at us. And yet that is the way of life. When we act as we are inclined, we destroy ourselves. And in the process, we often harm many around us.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 27

Posted: March 29th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 27

57.  The origin of all the passions is self-love; their consummation is pride. Self-love is a mindless love for the body. He who cuts this off cuts off at the same time all the passions that come from it.

It’s an interesting cycle St. Maximos describes. The central creed of Christianity has always been love of God and others — though that has not always been realized in practice. The two are not separate commands, but one. How do you love God? Love others. When you love others, you love God. This is even the basis given for judgment in Matthew. So when we mindlessly love ourselves and focus on our own desires instead, we open the door to the passions. It’s a way of life and a way of death. Life or death received now and enduring — not some future externalized reward or punishment.


The Problem of Evil?

Posted: February 18th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I definitely recommend the lectures series on Eastern Orthodoxy and Mysticism: The Transformation of the Senses given by Hieromonk Irenei Steenberg. The lectures are excellent, but I actually found the manner in which he handled the Q&A sessions following each one and some of the answers he gave on the spot in response to questions even more impressive.

As I was listening to the lectures a second time, something in the third lecture that I had overlooked the first time through caught my attention and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I think it captures much of my instinctive response to the particular shape the discussion of “The Problem of Evil” often takes today, but which I could never quite find words to properly express.

Father Irenei, in the part of the lecture in which he is discussing the limits of what we can say and know, makes the point that it’s a misnomer to describe evil as a problem. A problem has a solution. We may not know or have discovered the solution, but it’s reasonable to believe that a solution exists. He uses the illustration of a complex math problem. It might be hard. It might be beyond our present ability to solve. But it’s reasonable to believe it can be solved. By calling evil a problem, we imply there is a solution — that the gordian knot can be undone.

But evil isn’t like that. It’s truly a mystery that in some ways transcends our understanding. We don’t ultimately solve the question of evil. We never fully understand it in all its ramifications. We are invited instead to trust the God who also transcends our understanding — the God who has made himself immediately and personally accessible to us all by assuming our own nature. We are invited into a communion of love beyond our understanding. We are told that God has overcome evil and defeated death on our behalf. We can place our confidence in that particular God or not, but either way, we still can’t solve or resolve the problem of evil.

Evil is a mystery. We can see its impact, its effects. We sometimes know when it’s at work around us. But it’s often beyond our understanding.

None of which means we should give up or succumb to evil. We are to fight it in our lives. And we are to offer pastoral care to all those suffering evil. God gives us the grace, the power, to do both if we choose to avail ourselves of him. But those actions form a way of life, not an intellectual understanding of evil nor are our efforts necessarily effective at reducing evil on some large scale. We are to offer our efforts nonetheless. That act in creation is part of our reasonable worship. It’s part of our eucharistic function as priests in creation.

But we need to resist evil, not solve it. If we focus on the latter, I think we make ourselves vulnerable.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 9 – Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans Redux

Posted: July 24th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I decided to open and close the posts in this series reflecting on St. Ignatius with different chapters in his letter to the Smyrnaeans. In my first look at this letter, I focused on chapter 8. In this post I’m going to consider chapter 6.

Let no man be deceived. Even the heavenly things, and the glory of the angels, and the principalities, both visible and invisible, if they believe not on the blood of Christ, for them also is there condemnation. Let him who receiveth it, receive it in reality. Let not high place puff up any man. For the whole matter is faith and love, to which there is nothing preferable. Consider those who hold heretical opinions with regard to the grace of Jesus Christ which hath come unto us, how opposite they are to the mind of God. They have no care for love, nor concerning the widow, nor concerning the orphan, nor concerning the afflicted, nor concerning him who is bound or loosed, nor concerning him who is hungry or thirsty. They refrain from the eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that the eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father of his goodness raised up.

One of the things about any ancient faith grounded in a predominantly oral culture that is difficult for many in a modern literate culture to truly “get inside” is the fact that they don’t tend to “document” normal practice and belief. For instance, you won’t really grasp Hinduism simply by reading the Vedic literature. You won’t penetrate very far in understanding Buddhism simply by reading the life of Siddhartha Gautama or any of the scriptures or traditional texts. In order to advance in understanding either path, you must find a guru or teacher or school that will then communicate to you the practice of this way of life. (In the West today, a number of these paths actually have been reduced to writing, so you can follow a guru to some extent without actually working with them in person. But that is not the preferred means of communicating their way.)

When we read the New Testament canon and ancient Christian writings, we encounter a similar dynamic. Nowhere does anyone actually write down in a formal structured manner all that Jesus opened the eyes of the disciples to see and understand following the Resurrection. We are told in several places that he did so, but frustratingly are not told what he taught. Similarly, we are never actually given details of the practice of worship in the Church in any organized manner. Instead, we get snippets here and there as the NT authors write letters to be delivered by trusted coworkers in the faith who would convey them accurately in order to resolve problem situations that the author could not, for whatever reason, resolve in person. Sometimes we’re told what the problem is. Sometimes we aren’t.

However, rather than expecting people to learn from individual gurus or within schools that preserved a particular piece of the teaching, new Christians were expected to learn the traditions of the faith from the bishops installed and taught first by the apostles and then by the later bishops in turn. The knowledge of the practice of the faith was thus conveyed from generation to generation in the predominantly oral cultures of the era. I think some of our English translations have something of an agenda behind them in this regard. For instance, the nine occurrences or so of a negative usage of the Greek paradosis (or variants) are typically translated tradition, as in the tradition of the Pharisees.  (Cue somber, warning music.) However, in the three or so instances where paradosis is used positively in the NT, it is translated teaching instead in some translations. Personally, I think that somewhat distorts what Paul is saying when he, for example, tells the Thessalonian church to hold onto the traditions they were taught, whether orally or in writing (2 Thessalonians 2:15).

I’ve prefaced my thoughts on today’s letter excerpt with these reflections because once again we are not seeing a formal written Confession, Statement of Faith, or written rule of worship. Those will be as uncommon in the ancient writings as they are in the New Testament itself. In the first century, the Didache comes as close as we get to such a written statement and even it is more the confession of the tradition intended to be recited by catechumens at their Baptism than something broader or more comprehensive. As in the NT, the ancient Christian writers were typically writing to address a specific problem or counter a specific heresy the author could not deal with in person.

And we see that here with Ignatius. From the description, he was clearly writing to address some variation of gnostic belief and practice that was apparently gaining some traction in Smyrna. Gnostics generally believed in special knowledge rather than the practices of love common to Christians. And they believed the physical was evil and the spiritual good. So they often did not believe Jesus ever actually had a body or was really a human being at all. (We also call that heresy docetism.) Gnostics loved lots of levels and ranks of powers. In the first sentence, Ignatius dismisses all such structures, however powerful they might appear to be, by asserting that all reality rests on the blood of Jesus. And he stresses that he who receives that blood needs to receive it in reality.

Finally, in the last sentence, St. Ignatius notes that the heretics refuse to receive the eucharist because they will not confess it is the flesh of Jesus. By contrast then, those who do receive the eucharist must confess that it is the flesh of Jesus. Naturally a gnostic, with the deeply engrained belief that all physical bodies are evil would be particularly repelled by the idea of eating flesh and drinking blood. (It was generally understood as a strange belief among Christians by those completely outside the faith as well.) Yet even by the close of the first century Christians not just believed that in the eucharist they were consuming Christ, but actually confessed it was his flesh before receiving it. That image stands in sharp juxtaposition with the modern Baptist belief and even with the 1689 London Confession.

This is why the Baptist perspective has a fundamental historical problem. As we proceed, we will see the Christian liturgy better described and the understanding of the Eucharist more deeply explored. But the basic idea that the bread is the flesh of Christ and the wine is the blood of Christ and that we consume Jesus in order to receive life is not something dreamed up in the 4th century, or in the 8th century, or in the 13th century, or even in the mid to late 2nd century. The thread of this belief can effectively be traced all the way back to the start of the Church. It’s impossible to find a point where this belief ever changed from one thing to something different in the ancient church. In order to say that Baptists (or Zwingli or Calvin) have the correct perspective on the Eucharist, you virtually have to say that the Apostles got it wrong — or at least that they weren’t able to teach anyone following them the “correct” understanding.

Now, don’t misunderstand me on this point. Nothing we’ve looked at means you have to or even should accept the 13th century theory of transubstantiaton, which is one attempt to explain the mystery. You don’t need to know Aristotle or believe that Aristotle correctly describes the nature of reality. In fact, the list of things you don’t have to believe is pretty long. The two beliefs that are not supported historically, though, are the belief that it is “just” a symbol (whatever that may mean) and the alternative belief that while more than a mere symbol it remains a “purely” spiritual feeding.

Gnostics had no problem with symbols or with the spiritual. In fact, they had something of an overabundance of both.


The Didache 27 – Thanks When All Are Filled

Posted: July 7th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Didache 27 – Thanks When All Are Filled

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

But after you are filled, give thanks this way:

We thank Thee, holy Father, for Thy holy name which You didst cause to tabernacle in our hearts, and for the knowledge and faith and immortality, which You modest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever. Thou, Master almighty, didst create all things for Thy name’s sake; You gavest food and drink to men for enjoyment, that they might give thanks to Thee; but to us You didst freely give spiritual food and drink and life eternal through Thy Servant. Before all things we thank Thee that You are mighty; to Thee be the glory for ever. Remember, Lord, Thy Church, to deliver it from all evil and to make it perfect in Thy love, and gather it from the four winds, sanctified for Thy kingdom which Thou have prepared for it; for Thine is the power and the glory for ever. Let grace come, and let this world pass away. Hosanna to the God (Son) of David! If any one is holy, let him come; if any one is not so, let him repent. Maranatha. Amen.

But permit the prophets to make Thanksgiving as much as they desire.

Two days ago we saw how similar the blessing for bread and wine were to the Jewish berakhot. Today, that congruence continues with the prayer after a meal. The Jewish equivalent is the birkat ha-mazon drawn from Deuteronomy 8:10. In the early days of the Church, the Eucharist was a part of a familial meal. And this rhythm of prayers reflects that reality. The practice of a full meal did not last very long. We already see St. Paul ordering an end to it in Corinth because of their abuse of it. Some were feasting while others went hungry and some were getting drunk. So he told them all to eat before they gathered and instead of a full meal partake only of the body and blood of our Lord — the bread and wine. The practice of the full meal as the context for the Eucharist doesn’t really appeared to have lasted anywhere beyond the first century. Certainly by the middle of the second century, the practice appears to have been everywhere focused on the bread and wine alone. But the Teaching reflects the original practice.

The use of maranatha or “the Lord continues to come” is interesting. We know it’s a phrase the Paul used, perhaps because of the way the Lord continued to come to him, the only apostle called out of season. It’s one of the places where we do perhaps see Pauline influence in the Teaching.

The last sentence above is intriguing. I’ve looked at a number of different translations and even a few commentaries. Many seem to take the view that it means rather than that specific prayer, the prophets can pray what and as much as they like after the meal. That’s possible and may even be reasonable. But I notice that “thanksgiving” is the translation of “eucharist”. Might it not mean that the prophets can offer the Eucharist as often as they desire? Maybe not, but it is a thought I had.

The prayer itself is a good one to pray. I recommend it. I note that it assumes that either one is holy or one needs to repent — that is give up your way of living life and adopt Jesus’ way, presumably the way of life we’ve previously explored in the Teaching.


The Didache 20 – Who Causes You To Err?

Posted: June 30th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

See that no one causes you to err from this way of the Teaching, since apart from God it teaches you.

The construction of the sentence above is awkward in this, probably more literal, translation. I’ve read a number of the available translations and the general sense I get from them all is a warning about those who teach a way that is different than the way in the Teaching (didache) because if you practice the things they tell you to do, your practice of those things will move you away from God.  Father Stephen had a post the other day about belief and practice that seems to me to fit like a glove with this idea. What we truly believe is to a very large degree shaped by those things we actually do. It makes perfect sense to me, as someone who has practiced many different spiritual paths, that when we do the things “false teachers” would have us do, when we follow their way, that we are led astray from God.

The problem in modern, pluralistic Christianity, is discerning true practice from false. This is not an easy matter. The teachers today in Christian pluralism to a large extent sincerely and earnestly believe they are teaching true practice consistent with the teachings of Holy Scriptures and the apostles. They seek to bring the life of God to people even as they teach divergent and contradictory practices. We do not face a problem of motive today as much as a disconnect from the history and tradition of the church.

I’ve heard some suggest that “false teacher” will fail to produce “fruit”. While there are instances where that may certainly be true even today, I would suggest that observation largely does not conform to reality. First and foremost, it attempts to limit God in a way that it seems to me that God refuses to be limited. For my evidence, I point to the pluralism in belief and practice across the Christian spectrum and suggest you show me a place where God is not working at all. That is in spite of the fact that we find utterly contradictory practices in that spectrum and contradictory portraits of God. It is my impression that God surveys the landscape we have created and does what he can in every corner of it. God is eager to save and is not willing that any should perish. And he doesn’t tend to accept or even acknowledge limits. I will observe, though, that some flavors of Christianity today give him less to work with than others. And since we are to a large extent shaped by the things we do, the more iconoclastic among us are actually stripping away tools for our salvation.

As James notes, it is the teacher who will give an account to God. It is the teacher who will be judged more strictly. I pray that I have never led anyone from the way of life. Mostly, though, I pray for mercy. I’ve done the best I knew to do. And sometimes when I survive the modern landscape of Christianity, I marvel that we are not all prostrate before God praying for mercy for that which we have done to the body of the Son. I’m not even sure it’s of supreme importance who is “right” and who is “wrong”. None of us have any excuse for letting things reach this point. We need to beg forgiveness of one another.

I had actually intended to reflect on a larger segment of the Teaching in today’s post rather than this single sentence. I thought I had little to say on it. But as I wrote, the words kept coming in a direction I did not anticipate when I began. I always find that aspect of writing fascinating and sometimes a little disturbing.

Grace and peace, all.


The Didache 19 – The Way of Death

Posted: June 29th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Didache 19 – The Way of Death

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

And the way of death is this: First of all it is evil and accursed: murders, adultery, lust, fornication, thefts, idolatries, magic arts, witchcrafts, rape, false witness, hypocrisy, double-heartedness, deceit, haughtiness, depravity, self-will, greediness, filthy talking, jealousy, over-confidence, loftiness, boastfulness; persecutors of the good, hating truth, loving a lie, not knowing a reward for righteousness, not cleaving to good nor to righteous judgment, watching not for that which is good, but for that which is evil; from whom meekness and endurance are far, loving vanities, pursuing revenge, not pitying a poor man, not laboring for the afflicted, not knowing Him Who made them, murderers of children, destroyers of the handiwork of God, turning away from him who is in want, afflicting him who is distressed, advocates of the rich, lawless judges of the poor, utter sinners. Be delivered, children, from all these.

The section in the Teaching on the way of death is much shorter than the one on the way of life. That is, I think, as it should be. As Peter said of Jesus, “You have the words of life,” so we should strive to absorb and live and speak those words of life. Some of the markers for the way of death are among those behaviors we were warned against in the way of life. Others are listed only here. It’s an interesting list and I think it would do us well to be aware if any speak into our lives. America does not have a culture which is particularly good at pitying a poor man, for example. We have many who are advocates of the rich. It’s worth considering.

There is no suggestion within the Christian faith that we can somehow live within the way of life apart from Jesus. Nevertheless, we must choose how we desire to live, what sort of human being we wish to be, and who we will follow. When we find any of the above shaping our lives, we must remember that they are not a part of the way of life. And since the way of life is Jesus, that means we are not partaking of the life he desires to give us all.


The Didache 18 – Confession

Posted: June 28th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Didache 18 – Confession

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

In the church you shall acknowledge your transgressions, and you shall not come near for your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life.

The Teaching emphasizes confession. As in James, the earliest records are of confession before the whole church. Historically, it developed to be just the presbyter listening as you confessed to the Lord because public confession tended to harm those who heard the confession and were not strong enough to bear it. Some would hear the sin confessed and be tempted by that same sin. Others would hear the confession and pride like that of the pharisee in the parable of the pharisee and the publican would begin to weave its way into their hearts. Yet it is important that we confess to someone or the confession simply does not have the same power in our own minds and lives. Silent, inward confession does not tend to lead to change.

Confession has all but vanished from modern evangelicalism. The “altar call” or “invitation” provides a poor substitute among those groups who use it. “Accountability partners or groups” feel creepy and sick to me the way they are typically presented. They seem to be more about artificial control-based relationships than anything else. There is no confession. And as a result we are not honest with each other, with ourselves, or with God.

How can we avoid the masquerade discussed in my previous post if we do not know how to tell the truth?

For that is ultimately what confession is. We tell the truth about ourselves to God in the presence of another human being. And in so doing, we begin to become human once more.

This marks the end of the Teaching on the way of life. It’s been a list of commandments to do and things we need not to do. All of it taken together forms the way of life.


The Didache 16 – Do Not Engender Bitterness

Posted: June 26th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Didache 16 – Do Not Engender Bitterness

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

Do not remove your hand from your son or daughter; rather, teach them the fear of God from their youth. Do not enjoin anything in your bitterness upon your bondman or maidservant, who hope in the same God, lest ever they shall fear not God who is over both; for he comes not to call according to the outward appearance, but to them whom the Spirit has prepared. And you bondmen shall be subject to your masters as to a type of God, in modesty and fear.

I’ve been around American evangelicalism long enough to know how many in that tradition will interpret the first sentence above. Does it help you at all to know that it is also interpreted “Do not remove your heart”? How about the caution in the next sentence against enjoining anything in your bitterness? Ring any bells with what Paul tells fathers in Ephesians? Sigh. I really don’t have anything I feel like saying. I would be “preaching to the choir” as they say in Baptist circles. The ones who actually need to hear what I might say never would, even if it is part of the way of life.

Christianity was already putting limits on the treatment of slaves in the first century. In Roman culture the head of the household held the power of life and death over children, over wives, and over slaves. It’s hard for us to imagine today. To be fair, in some part these limits did flow from the limits God had worked to place within Torah and within the life experience of all Jews. Christianity just took it to its conclusion in Jesus. Eventually the Church would hold that no baptized Christian could be a slave to another man. While there were issues with the treatment of serfs and other peasants beholden to the Lord of the manor, slavery as such had almost vanished in the West before the introduction of African slaves in the early modern era. It was a huge step backwards for Christians and took centuries to correct. My own denomination, the SBC, was formed in a schism in support of slavery.

Again, sigh.