The Taser's Edge


Which Is Easier?: Divorce, Forgiveness, and Healing

The Gospel According to Luke 5:17-26 (ESV):

On one of those days, as he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was with him to heal. And behold, some men were bringing on a bed a man who was paralyzed, and they were seeking to bring him in and lay him before Jesus, but finding no way to bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the midst before Jesus. And when he saw their faith, he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” And the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, saying, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” When Jesus perceived their thoughts, he answered them, “Why do you question in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralyzed—“I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.” And immediately he rose up before them and picked up what he had been lying on and went home, glorifying God. And amazement seized them all, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen extraordinary things today.”

In the wounded state in which the end of my marriage left me, my friends brought me to Jesus, and I knew that I wanted Him to heal me. But when Jesus looked at me and said, “Your sins are forgiven,” I realized that that was what I had most wanted. The desire deeper than my desire to be healed, a desire I had not known I had, was to be forgiven.

Why, consciously speaking, did I have the desire to be healed, but not the desire to forgiven? I wanted His healing because I could feel my hurt every day and every step and almost every breath, a spiritual nerve damage. I did not want forgiveness because I did not believe it was possible for me to be forgiven.

Many people have noted that evangelical Christians tend to focus on certain favorite sins, especially those with any connection whatsoever to sex, while mentally marking others as less important or less harmful. I thought I was good at avoiding this particular trap until I found myself getting divorced, and I found I was incapable of believing that God forgave me. When I tried to believe, my imagination sputtered, died, and rolled to a stop. Loss of imagination is more than a foggy, moonless night. Loss of image-ination is the definition of blindness.

How broken was the body of the man whom Jesus forgave and healed? Was he born this way? It’s hard to believe that he could have survived into adulthood if that had been the case. Did he have a degenerative illness that we could name today but still couldn’t cure? Did he have a spinal cord injury?

To “rise, pick up your bed and go home” requires balance and the finest of motor skills along with that bundle of motions we call the ability to walk. Think through all of the motions and muscle groups required to stand up from the floor, kneel down and roll up some bedding, stand up again, then bend over to pick up that mat and carry it over your shoulder to walk home. These are levels of restoration happening in the human body that we still could not explain.

And yet forgiveness is the miracle, what Jesus extends first and what even the Pharisees and the teachers of the law know is something only God can give.

To receive forgiveness in the places we most need it is not only a passive reception but an act of the will. We don’t even know if the paralyzed man believed that he was indeed forgiven. I do will to believe and more and more I succeed.

I cannot offer enough gratitude to all those who carried me to the Healer and who strengthened my will to believe that He was also a Forgiver. Thank you.

Healing High Five!

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(Yet) A(nother) Response to Ross Douthat

Part I: A Furious Few Days in One Small Corner of the Interwebs:

The article that kicked it off:

The responses that rolled in:

And finally, far less Facebook-ed:

 

Part II: My Own Response

The worst of the responses to Douthat have failed to hear his argument. To be clear, contra Uffman and Butler Bass, he is NOT making the decades-old evangelical argument that the American mainline churches’ drop in attendance since the Cold War era is due to those churches’ lack of Christian conviction, values, faithfulness, etc. Not even the Southern Baptist Convention (shrinking symbol of American evangelicalism) leads with that argument any more.

The heart of Douthat’s op-ed instead comes at its end:

What should be wished for…is that liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence…the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism.

The only response that I have read that really hears this final point is AKM Adams. And it’s on this point that Douthat is completely right.

Part III: An Oddly Illustrative Juxtaposition

During my time at Duke Divinity, I served a year-long internship at a rural North Carolina United Methodist Church. Other populations have their Rotary or Kiwanis or Knights of Columbus, but rural North Carolinians have the Ruritan Club. Members get together a couple times or more each month, eat well, raise funds for various causes, sometimes join together in volunteer opportunities.

Almost every active member of the church was a Ruritan (or the spouse of a Ruritan), and almost every active Ruritan was an active member of one of the local churches. The two populations were virtually interchangeable, but what this meant is that the church could have no discipleship-oriented activities, service projects, classes, small groups, Bible studies, or worship services while the Ruritans were meeting or having an event.

For the lay and previous pastoral leadership of this particular congregation, this was not a problem. My own read is that this was not a conflation (as one might want to assume unfairly of rural North Carolinians) of being a good American and being a Christian. The conflation was between being a person who cared for others and being a Christian.

They are not the same.

Part IV: An Old Hope
The Episcopal Church in particular, but also other mainline denominations such as the UCC, as well as parts of the PCUSA, the UMC, and the ELCA (and sorry if I’m leaving out any) are just like the Ruritans. There are plenty of good things to be said about Ruritans, and there were plenty of good reasons for liberal Christians to be a non-violent witness at the Chicago G-8 Summit this year.

But because I’m a Christian, I am fool enough to believe that by the Holy Spirit, when a Ruritan serves a pint of Brunswick stew to another Ruritan, it can be Christ serving Brunswick stew. And when an Anabaptist Catholic Worker refuses to return the blows of an overzealous riot policeman, that can be Christ loving the world once again.

There is a difference in the Christian’s way of being in the world, because of what we believe about the triune God in the world, and because of the particular way that particular God has sought out our particular selves. This particularity is called the Gospel of Jesus Christ. God help us if we lose it, no matter how much our churches may shrink or grow.



The Moral Theology of the Devil

Thomas Merton, in his Seeds of Contemplation (the contents of which much more easily found in a greatly expanded version as New Seeds of Contemplation), has a fascinating chapter from which this post took its title. The main body of the barely two-page chapter is a harsh condemnation, without ever using the specific theological terms, of TULIP– and Puritan-style Calvinist (which are NOT, as that Wikipedia link fails to make clear, the only Calvinisms out there) soteriology.

(To make one comment on that, while I appreciate Merton for never pulling his punches in naming evil “evil,” his view toward these folks is uncharacteristically uncharitable, attributing evil intentions rather than just good ol’ being-really-wrong-about-some-things-ness to them.)

What struck me most personally in the chapter, however, is how it ends. While I would have tended to think of the following as the cardinal sin of evangelicals (like me), Merton helps me to acknowledge that it’s more widespread than just in my tribe.

I don’t need to try to name it, as Merton already has: “The Moral Theology of the Devil”:

The devil is not afraid to preach the will of God provided he can preach it in his own way.

The argument goes something like this: “God wills you to do what is right. But you have an interior attraction which tells you, by a nice warm glow of satisfaction, what is right. Therefore, if your Superiors try to interfere and make you do something that does not produce this comfortable sense of interior satisfaction, quote Scripture, tell them that you ought to obey God rather than men, and then go ahead and do your own will, do the thing that gives you that nice, warm glow.”

Christ, have mercy on your followers.




The Gospel of the Absurd

Why Evil? Why Sin? Why the Fall? Why Suffering? Why Death? Evil is absurd, Sin is absurd, the Fall is absurd, Suffering is absurd, and Death is absurd. But the message that God became human, suffered, and then died is the out-Absurding of all these things.

1 Corinthians 1:18: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

What’s the difference between foolishness and absurdity? Perhaps there is none, but perhaps there’s something to be learned from existentialism. And certainly there’s something to be learned from those who suffer: So my suffering is unending and God’s response is not to end it but to also suffer?!

Paul may call the Gospel ‘foolish,’ whether you believe it or not you may call it ‘stupid,’ but ‘absurd’ captures it even better for me.



OWS, Bank Transfer Day, and Christian Discipleship

Today, as you may already be aware, is Bank Transfer Day, a day to organize people to move their money from the mega-banks to local banks and especially to credit unions, with the hope that it spurs financial reforms in those big banks. The actual “day” parallels the Occupy Wall Street movement, but there are plenty of people fed up with American banking-as-usual who have no sympathy for OWS protesters.

For me, having moved from Bank of America to Central Illinois Credit Union here in Champaigna couple months ago, I am glad it’s happening. I indeed hope that there is enough momentum away from the big five banks to force some self-regulation, as the government continues to show little interest in enforcing existing regulations or in crafting smarter regulations. At the same time, statistically speaking (in terms of both numbers of accounts and especially in terms of the amount of capital shifting) there is no reason that an unbelievably popular Bank Transfer Day will have any effect, unless it makes the big banks feel “guilty,” and by “guilty” I mean “scrutinized” or at least “in the spotlight.”

Bank Transfer Day was designed to be a populist event where even people who would never march with a sign might finally follow through on doing something about their annoyance with talking to telephone-answering-robots about little-published fees on their bank statements. However, it will have no long-term impact on the economic systems which caused the current global recession.

That is, it will have no impact in itself. It must be part of a larger reformation, and, as yet, there is no evidence that there is a reformation to come.

For Christians, there is a larger context for understanding Bank Transfer Day and larger economic reforms: the life of God in Christ and the coming of the Kingdom which Christ proclaimed. The Christian God has Justice as a quality of character. Justice, therefore, is not and cannot be an abstraction for Christians to talk about in philosophy classes or election seasons or populist movements or angry Facebook back-and-forths alone. This is because the question, “What is justice?” is one way of asking, “Who is God?”

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