>> Tuesday, October 27, 2009

My mother grew up as the daughter of a missionary couple in Nigeria. When she and her siblings grew up and started families, all but one of them returned to the US. My aunt and her husband stayed in Africa and raised my cousins there. I'm no stranger to stories of the miraculous power of God. Where they're living, the spiritual battle is obvious. Evil is real and possessive, and Christian prayer has immediate and definable results. The story that will always be most vivid to me is when my uncle was attacked outside their home by a man with a gun who wanted his car. I believe my cousin was in the back seat. He crawled out the other side and hid, and watched as the man held the gun to my uncle's head and pulled the trigger. When the gun did not fire, he pointed it to the ground to figure out the problem, and that's when the gun went off. I don't recall what words were spoken between the man and my uncle, but the man took the car; the family was unharmed. Another shorter example of the warfare in their country is the fact that the Christians keep tabs on which of the local religious ceremonies are typically celebrated by some with Christian Church or mission burnings. Although not every person they come into contact with holds a gun to their heads or lights their homes on fire, these kind of situations are common and always expected; they put their lives on the line knowing that every person they speak to whom they do not know personally has potential to harm them if they even let on about Christ.

I've heard many stories of this kind, as well as amazing illnesses cured through prayer, demons cast out, amazing unaccountable provisions, and all the other kinds of miracles Christ performs in the New Testament, happening today, but somehow only overseas. I've heard these stories from the pulpit as well, used as examples of how evil is prevalent and how the Holy Spirit still performs miracles. I know that I am not destined for the Sahara or life in a third-world country, but these stories cause me to catch my breath at the fact that people actually have to choose to risk their life for Christ. Not only do they choose to risk their lives every moment (even inside their own home some days) but they know that they are firm in their faith, knowing and believing clearly every element of Scripture, for both protection and witness. As they interact with the Muslim people all around them, they always have a choice: to speak Christ's Truth, which He honors with rejoicing and dependable loving care, to renounce Him in exchange for safety from the people, which I would expect would be quite unreliable... or to water down the Word just enough to try to get a point across without offending anyone who could literally stone them in the street, trusting in their own ability to take care of themselves and rewrite what Christ intended them to share in the first place. But the latter is not why they're there; true knowledge of God's guidance and God's physical and ever-present hand in protection allows them the freedom to offer the Truth. God then stops the gun pressed against their head from firing.

In an odd way, that level of risk gives more meaning to what one believes. If I feel I have nothing much to lose either way in my mostly safe American neighborhood, then it doesn't really matter that much what I believe so long as I have it all worked out by the end. I mentioned that I've heard similar stories in sermons; those sermons typically ended with the concept that though Satan works in blatant and obvious ways like these through non-Christians in third-world countries, in America Satan is subtle. Because we statistically have enough, we don't have to trust in God for things. Because it's acceptable to believe whatever we want to believe, we don't have to think much about what we believe as we never (much) need to depend upon it or march into battle with it. Non-Christians will either not talk about religion, will listen and smile and nod and carry on in their own way, or will argue simply to argue... but I'm quite confident saying that nobody I know in my life would set my house on fire; our laws just don't work that way, and most of us have a pretty safe concept of what's socially acceptable.

The generalizations being made in the sermons I've heard on this is that Satan is obvious and attacks offensively by blatantly using non-Christians in third-world countries, and that he's subtle and attacks through apathy and a tolerant non-Christian society in areas with wealth. In other words, the assumed bottom line in spiritual warfare is that it's Christians (God) vs. non-Christians (Satan). And when I hear my uncle's stories - even the good ones - I feel different inside about it than I feel when I hear of the ways in which Satan is subtle. The anger is righteous, the fear is covered by faith, and the miracles are truly joyful; subtlety is simply annoying and anti-climactic. Though I obviously don't want pain or struggle for anyone, I want what I believe to matter, and right now it really doesn't seem to. What I believe doesn't affect anyone in the life I'm leading. Even as a teacher, though I affect the children, I instruct youth in a Christian environment who are generally willing to believe whatever I tell them. Subtle takes a base of strategy and suspicion before you're even sure there's a battle; in Africa, as far as I can tell, there's such a difference between the Christian and the non-Christian that Christians hold themselves differently and interact with you differently, and assumptions are mostly reliable about what you'll get. You typically don't have to guess. There's something freeing about that to me, a whole "I'm done with the games, let's get to the bottom line" perspective. In some ways I always thought that was somewhat unfair, since Paul says I'll be fighting for my life and right now all I'm fighting is laziness. And frankly, the general assumptions about the use of the American culture just don't sit well with me in a final sense. That just couldn't possibly be the only way it works.

Just today I finally listened to the recordings made of the three parish briefings given to our congregation prior to Saturday's diocese Special Convention. We managed to miss attending all three of them, and I only picked up the copies on Friday. As I sat through three 80-minute CDs I had a growing gut reaction, a somewhat familiar feeling that I couldn't quite place. It wasn't until the middle of the last CD that I realized... this is that feeling, the one with the African car hijacking and the gun that didn't fire.

Have you ever had it happen when you're looking for something on your desk and can't find it, and you get more and more desperate and look in all the drawers and then suddenly realize it's been sitting in front of you the whole time? This is what we've been missing: Satan didn't change his way of using non-Christians, Satan didn't choose to go from causing non-Christians to set fires to causing non-Christians to be indifferent based on location. Satan switched the players! He's taken the obvious and put it in the hands of other Christians, and because we're so focused on fighting outsiders and banding together inside the walls we just simply didn't see it sitting right in front of us. Father Mike quoted someone who compared this current and building Anglican struggle to the biggest spiritual conflict in impact since the Reformation. Considering it's the third largest church denomination in the world, that's not necessarily exaggerated. We're talking about Protestant church leaders who say that Jesus is not the Son of God! Protestant bishops honestly suggesting that the Bible could not be from God! How much more obvious can we get?

I know that in our church system the politics are vitally important, as are the personal relationships between diocese in the worldwide Anglican Communion. I know that this will take careful strategy by our Bishop and leaders and other folks on our side, and they're doing a fabulous job of it already. But it's clear to me that there absolutely are sides of good and evil in this. This is the gun to our head and the match at our doorstep. It's time to be Saharan missionaries to ourselves, willing to know that God won't allow us to be stoned in the street unless it's truly to His greater purpose. I'm overwhelmed by suddenly seeing an arena for action, finally, because what I believe can matter. I'm ready to fight, because I've finally found a battle I recognize enough to know that with the Lord I can stand against it. I see potential to apply my faith in a place of desperate need. Unfortunately, laypeople don't seem to have very much influence in the church political system, so I really don't know where personally to start.

Maybe I should have gone to seminary.


It's all about theology.

>> Monday, October 26, 2009

In a previous post I provided background of the chaos going on in the Episcopal Church right now, as well as a link to the address from our Bishop on August 13th. This past Saturday the diocese met in a Special Convention in order to vote on five different resolutions meant to clarify our position on the votes from the General Convention in July. There are a lot of articles responding to this Special Convention, some which are accurate and some which are not, as the local secular newspapers have reported on it nearly as much as the Church has. And, as with anything done within a somewhat political arena, even the reports from affected groups tend to vary as to the report of the purpose and intent of what happened on Saturday.

Suffice it to say, what's been done here doesn't appear to have ever happened before, and we have no idea how the impacts will play out. Someone interviewed by one of the secular papers pointed out that when you are a willing member of an organization that utilizes a hierarchy for decision making, you can't just go ahead and make up your own rules when you disagree with the people in charge. But this is more or less what we've attempted to do; what other option is there when the leadership of the church decides on things that appear to be contrary to Christ? If Christ isn't the head of the Church, how can it be called a Christian church? Bishop Lawrence's address (click for the .pdf) clarifies the purpose of the meeting, the specific resolutions that were voted upon (four of five passed overwhelmingly, the fifth was put off for later to be better worded), and what he views for the future of the Diocese.

So now we've come to the point where I give my own personal opinion. I've lately been accused (rightly, though negatively) of having a very black and white view of things, but in the case of theology, I firmly believe there is One Right Way. Just like scientists acknowledge a fundamental (read: "basic and underlying") natural law that creates gravity and seasons and also acknowledge that there's an awful lot of natural law that we are still discovering, I also believe that there is a fundamental spiritual law that creates the reality of the spiritual dimension of our current lives, past, and our eternal future. We know that the law of gravity is right and good and that if someone figured out how to turn off the gravitational pull of the Earth, we'd most likely all die horrible scary deaths. In the same way, I know that the "law" (read: system) of grace and salvation simply Are, and that if someone figured out how to turn off that system, every one of us would die horrible scary deaths in eternity. Most people would call it belief or faith, perhaps a very very deep sense of faith. But I feel it so much more deeply than that; belief and faith waver. My understanding of the framework of spiritual reality simply IS in the same way that I know that if I get up off this sofa I won't just float away. All of this simply to say that I am reacting to the situation in the Episcopal Church with a very clear black and white response: This is about theology. This is about a church and theology. If a church refuses to address theology, then I guarantee you Satan's having the biggest party this side of the one he threw at 9/11 or the Crusades.

Here's what I'm thinking: One of the topics voted on on Saturday is titled "The Lordship of Christ and the Sufficiency of Scripture". Such is the chaos of the Episcopal Church that the Diocese of South Carolina had to have a special meeting to visibly agree that Christ is Lord and the "Scriptures contain everything necessary for salvation." How can we be disagreeing on this in the greater Communion!? This is all about basic and vital theology.

One of the topics voted on is the SC response to the issue of appointing practicing non-heterosexual priests (and other topics related to that issue). *Let me clarify: The resolution on Saturday was not a re-vote on the homosexuality issue, it was a statement of how the diocese will adjust its participation in the national Church in response to the vote in July. My comments here are related to the July vote and not the vote on participation.* I may have said this before, but one role of the church as I understand it is to clarify with Scriptural basis what is a sin and what is not a sin. In fact, churches have been lambasted from the secular community for doing exactly that: being judgmental and too "thou-shalt-not". Everyone who appears to be happy with the decisions from General Convention are those who see this as a social or political issue; by adding too many "thou-shalt-nots" we alienate people from Christ. They find it acceptable to bend the theology to make sure people feel loved and welcomed by the church. I guarantee you that Christ loved the rich young man who asked how he could follow Him; but when the man wasn't willing to sell all he had and never look back (which was what Christ required of him at that time), Christ didn't say "Oh, well, I love you too much... why don't you just sell half of it?" He said, (with disappointment), "Well, then, I'm sorry, but that's the way it is." The church MUST stand firm on theology. This is not a social issue or a debate about loving our neighbors. This is about theology.

(An aside here: Everything I've read in this whole thing also states "tradition" and the "creeds and canons" next to "theology". What the unfamiliar reader needs to understand is that the theology (Holy Scripture) came first; the tradition, creeds and canons are built upon it and create the structure through which the Anglican Communion experiences the theology. Nothing in the tradition, creeds or canons may contradict the Scriptures, according to their own rules for creating them. So when the General Convention contradicts Scriptures, it is also contradicting the basic rules and tenants upon which the denomination was built.)

Okay. So. General Convention wants to allow practicing non-heterosexual people to become priests. I believe the wording was something along the lines of agreeing that "people who believe that they are non-heterosexual may also be called to the priesthood." I agree with that, God can call anyone. However, I take issue with the "practicing". In my understanding of spiritual reality, non-heterosexual practice is sin. I have yet to be presented with any adequate proof in the original Biblical languages or arguments to convince me that it's not a sin. Can I show Christ's love to folks who practice this way? Sure thing! However, if the Church preaches that homosexuality (and other non-hetero practices) are sin, then they should not become priests! No congregation would willingly and excitedly place a kleptomaniac priest who's proud of what he steals in the pulpit, because we all know that stealing is a sin. No congregation would excitedly call a priest who publicly brags (and provides proof) about how many times he cheated on his seminary exams, because cheating is a sin. If the Church believes that non-heterosexual practice is a sin, then these people should not be in the pulpit without repentance and a change of ways! However, if the church does not believe that it's a sin, then why are we discussing it? If it's a non-issue in theology, this would hold the same place as restricting someone from the pulpit because their hair is brown. As in all things here, this is a theology issue.

The third resolution has to do with our diocese helping to seek out and support smaller congregations around the country who are also baffled by the current events, but are either too busy or too small to have any impact. It's basically an outreach mission to our own people who haven't had a voice. The fourth resolution (I think) has to do with how we can change the Anglican Church in theologically sound ways to be applicable to the 21st century. I'm kind of unclear on that one, but we're getting there.

The other interesting event in the life of the church was the Pope's official invitation to disillusioned members of the Anglican Communion (Episcopal Church) to "rejoin" the Catholic Church, making exceptions for them in various traditions and so forth. And there's (surprising to me, but probably shouldn't be by now) quite a bit of positive response to the offer from the Anglican perspective.

This is another area in which my black and white understandings of theology rear their heads. Hopefully all of you have heard of this little bitty thing that happened way back when called the Reformation. Protestants happened (including The Protestant Episcopal Church of America) because people believed that the theology of the Roman Catholic Church was incorrect. The biggest difference, and an exceptionally vital one, was the understanding that Christ's resurrection brought us back to God through grace alone. Roman Catholics have a list of days they must attend church, a system of confession and penance in order to try to make up for their sins on their own. That fundamental theological difference demonstrates a different understanding of why Christ was even on the earth, and when you start changing that, the entire Bible (which ties together in purpose and understanding of God and spiritual reality from beginning to end) and knowledge of spiritual reality is changed. If people don't understand that, then I honestly question how close they may be to Christ at a personal level. If you are truly seeking to understand who God is and your place in the spiritual world, you wouldn't be willing to sacrifice with a leap from Protestant beliefs back to Roman Catholic beliefs for the sake of being guaranteed heterosexual and male priests. Giving up a Protestant world view for a Roman Catholic one is completely missing the underlying points and purpose that Christ has set for us. The difference between the two churches is their statements of how to be eternally saved and know God. To me, that's not negotiable; being "one holy and catholic apostolic church" (from the Nicene Creed) does not extend the meaning of a unified body of believers to the wafting flow of fundamental theology with the Roman Catholic Church. This is a theology issue.

As far as I can tell at this point, the national Episcopal Church is seeing Saturday's meeting either as a bunch of whiny people who don't like the rules trying to look tough or as a complete non-issue that's not worth consideration. But I, for one, am proud of Bishop Lawrence and the leaders in the diocese for recognizing that these are issues of theology and leading us in standing up for Christ and His kingdom. Though they don't have everything right (we are all human), they're willing to look and dig and strive to truly see what Christ wants for and from His church and they're willing to acknowledge and address the impacts that our humanity is having on the Church. In the book of John, Christ said, "20Remember the words I spoke to you: 'No servant is greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also." The Bishop and our leaders have heard these words and are not afraid; they know it won't be easy. But when you choose to follow Christ, it's necessary to make a stand wherever it's needed in His name.


About This Blog

Life is about changes; transitions from one place to another, from one purpose to another, from one being to another. They say that the person you are today is a completely different person from who you were ten years ago and who you'll be ten years from now. So far, at the age of 33, I've had four major transitions in my life which redefined who I am. Two years into the results of the most recent transition I am again - still - exploring how God is shaping me. Over the next few months I hope to review my past and set goals for the future, and embrace the next adventure of rediscovering me.

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