A Community of the Imperfect

many candles

Yesterday I read this article from America Magazine, titled “A Communion of Saints and Sinners: Loving an Imperfect Church,” and I was touched by its insights. The writer, Leonard J. DeLorenzo, reflects on how the church can simultaneously hold so many sins and failures, and yet also be the life-giving source of healing, joy, sustenance, and communion that so many of its members know and feel it to be. Musing over this perhaps counterintuitive reality, DeLorenzo writes:

The church is human with all that is good about our humanity, but not without those parts of us that have been corrupted through pride, the lust for prestige, acts of violence and hidden malice. The church is also divine, for the love of God, which is God’s very being, touches us here to first heal the corruptions of our humanity and then elevate our humanity toward a relationship with God.

What Congar and others rediscovered at the [Vatican II] council was that the church does not exist as an idea or in the imagination, but is in fact a living, breathing, beautiful and wounded body, whose very life is generated from the grace of God, though it is not yet fully what it is called to be.

That is often what strikes me each week when I go with my husband and our daughter to Mass. Sitting in our pew after receiving Communion, I watch all the rest of the people approaching the Eucharist, lining up together, advancing slowly forward together to receive the same Body of Christ, each one together participating in a worldwide communion of 1.2 billion Catholics — and a broader communion with another billion non-Catholic Christians — found to varying degrees in every corner of the globe in thousands of different cultural settings. And I think to myself as I watch them that, in the words of St. Paul, each one of these is a member of Christ’s mystical Body; each one is precious; each one is equally important; each one is sinful in his or her own ways, and each penitent one is lovingly redeemed. We are a vast yet intimate community of one body having many parts, sharing in the wounded-and-risen Body of our common Lord. In the words of a favorite hymn of ours: “We are one body, one body in Christ, and we do not stand alone…”

We do not stand alone — even though our communion is imperfect and consists of very flawed people. It’s impossible to be fully in relationship with Christ without also being in relationship with the rest of his flock. While each member of the church has his or her own individual relationship with Christ, Christianity isn’t a religion for individualists preferring to remain apart from the community of Christ’s people (as Pope Francis has reminded us on many occasions). Christianity is in fact a deeply communal religion that calls its members not to a purely solitary spiritual journey of individualistic isolation, but rather to a spiritual life lived as a vital part of Christ’s earthly Body-in-community. This Body-in-community is the whole church.

The notion of real community often doesn’t rank very highly in our individualized Western culture, which can make it seem easy to think that the church as a community is irrelevant, or at least unimportant, to a person’s active living practice of his or her faith. But this would be a very incomplete understanding of what Christianity, as a relational religion, truly is. The church community, comprised of ordinary folk, certainly isn’t a perfect society in either its human leadership or its laypeople. It will always bear sins and failures within itself, some very grievous. It is us in all of our humanity: the beauty and the ugliness are both there. More importantly, the grace of Christ through the Holy Spirit is always there — in that communal body, in the sacraments, in togetherness — just as his grace also dwells in the individual prayerful heart. The grace is always there, always offered to us, the flood of light to warm our spirits, to comfort us and beckon us to walk toward it, to let it guide us on our way.

I began to experience an awareness of the church’s communal wholeness in a new way when I recently signed up to be a eucharistic minister (one of the people who offers either the eucharistic bread or wine to those coming for Communion). It happened that the very first person to whom I ever gave Communion was my husband, who himself chose to become Catholic two years ago, followed by our daughter, who had her First Communion almost one year ago. There I was, holding the chalice of wine, looking into their faces and hearing myself say to them, “the Blood of Christ,” as I gave them the cup. (Our daughter, who is 8, always gives me a big hug right after I give her Communion before she heads back to the pew, which makes it that much sweeter!). As each person after them approached me, I felt more and more a sense of humility; of how, despite my flaws, I am a part of this body of equals before God, and how awed I felt to be able to serve that body-of-many-parts in this very modest way. Each time that I’ve served as a eucharistic minister since then, I have experienced this sense of humility and awe. There’s something very special going on in that body, imperfect though we all are.

In a somewhat related way, all of this reminds me of what Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI have repeatedly said about what Christianity is: Christianity can’t be defined as primarily a system of ethics and morals, as though it were simply a kind of philosophical humanism. Christianity is primarily a relationship with a divine Person, from which these things then flow. It’s a relationship with a God who emptied Godself to become enfleshed as a human born of a woman, to become a Person both fully human and fully divine; this Person suffered torture, died, was buried, rose again on the third day, and ascended to Heaven in his luminous, resurrected physical body — as witnessed by many women and men who would later go to their deaths for refusing to say this did not happen. As St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians around the year 50 (and scholars say he was likely quoting an even earlier source), this divine Person demonstrated the divine love for Creation in the most self-emptying of ways, which in some mysterious way also brought about our own redemption and salvation.

DeLorenzo reflects on the church community as Christ’s ongoing earthly instrument in this:

And in what is the richest irony of all, God elects to work through and with ordinary, sinful human beings in this plan of salvation. For the plan is to save us together for each other, not separately for our lonesome selves. It is the communion of sinners that is the sign and instrument of this salvation.

This sinner thanks God for that!

 © 2015 Elizabeth Keck

The Cosmic Breach

Most religions and philosophies over the course of human history have understood that human actions often fall short of — and sometimes run directly counter to — what is good, generous, loving, humble, and in line with the desires of an infinitely good God. Different systems place differing levels of emphasis on the problem of this disparity between human behavior and divine example; in Christianity, it is certainly one of the most central concerns of the faith. Those of us familiar with Christianity have often heard the phrase, “Jesus Christ died for our sins.” But what does that mean? It can almost become one of those phrases that loses its meaning; it is heard often but is hardly self-explanatory. It invites the questions, “Why? What for? And in what way?”

Christian faith holds that Jesus’ voluntary death on the cross and subsequent Resurrection was necessary to mend the divide between humanity and God, to step into the cosmic breach that sin tore open between them, to bring humankind back into right relationship with its — and the world’s — Creator. Christianity holds that this was necessary because of the gaping distance that sin creates between humans, who are so often willful, selfish, vindictive, cruel, unthinking, and hypocritical, and God, who is none of those things. Hence, according to Christian faith, God united with human flesh, becoming one of us in what Christians call the Second Person of the Trinity: Jesus Christ. In so doing, God and humanity became united in that person in the Incarnation, in a profound act when Christ-God “emptied himself” (Greek, heauton ekenosen) to take on servant form, says Paul in his letter to the Phillippians. Self-emptying, indeed, for a God to come to the level of a human, submit Godself to human needs, limitations, and struggles, and then to humiliation in a grisly and eminently unjust death. Why, in the Christian worldview, was this necessary to permanently heal the breach between humanity and God and bestow grace for sin?

Just how Christ’s death functioned to forever absolve human beings from sin and heal the cosmic breach between God and humanity has been a subject for theologians from the earliest Christians onward. In ancient Israel, the sacrificial system provided a way to make reparation for sin. The Hebrew Bible describes two types of sacrifice that were made for sin: the hatta’t and the asham. It seems that the first type was made on behalf of “unintentional” sin, while the second type was performed to make reparation for intentional sin that incurred guilt. Just how the Israelites understood the efficacy and symbolism of the sacrificial system is a massive question in biblical scholarship, since the Bible itself says several things on the matter — not mutually exclusive things, but things that emphasize different aspects of the meaning of sacrifice. Further, there is no systematic explanation of how sacrifice was understood to “work,” probably because the ancient Israelites had no need to explain it systematically, and were not writing for our benefit. Complicating matters even further is the fact that there were several different types of sacrifice that served clearly different purposes, having nothing to do with sin. There were thanksgiving offerings, for example, and whole burnt-offerings, and offerings of peace and well-being. In any case, some of the Church Fathers in the first centuries after Christ concluded that Christ’s atonement on the cross was sacrificial in nature in the way that the hatta’t or the asham was — Christ effected the ultimate sacrifice to dispense forever with the pernicious effects of sin upon the soul and separation from God, and he could only do this because he came from God.

There are a couple of verses in the New Testament that hint at this interpretation, but in many of the earliest New Testament writings (the first three, or “Synoptic” Gospels, and some of the letters of Paul), there is not a clear indication that this was a predominant early interpretation for how Christ’s death and Resurrection worked. More often, we find either ambiguity, or the idea that Christ’s death and Resurrection served as a reconciling event. That is, it was a demonstration of God’s solidarity with and love for humankind, and victory over death, that proclaimed God’s healing of the breach that sin causes between humans and God. In other words, not a required blood atonement under a sacrificial system, but a demonstrative act that effected reconciliation through its power. We see this interpretation in Paul, in one of the earliest-dated writings in the New Testament (Paul wrote his letters and died before the Gospels as we know them were circulating):

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation….All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:17-20)

In her book Joy to the World! Mission in the Age of Global Christianity, Dr. Dana Robert, expert in world Christianity and mission history, describes it this way: “For his followers, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the ultimate sign that God loves the world. In becoming human, God identified with our sufferings, failures, and weaknesses. In dying on the cross, he chose to take on the pain of human vulnerability rather than commit violence by fighting or by seizing earthly power. In the resurrection, he promised us life over death. Just as God became one with us through becoming human in Jesus Christ, so is humanity united with God. The resurrection of Jesus carries in it the assurance of humanity’s permanent reconciliation with its Creator.”

There is probably more than one way for a Christian to interpret the significance and purpose of the Christ event. But for Paul, one early and influential Christian who wrote roughly between 50-60 CE, the theology of reconciliation of humanity with God — and thus, crucially, the divine invitation for the reconciliation of human beings with one another — was at the very heart of it.

© Elizabeth Keck 2011

Of Metaphor, Imagination, and Shrines

Over the last week I have continued to think about the ways that Zen philosophy, particularly as expressed through the “dry landscape” or karesansui garden, can enrich my own spiritual practice. I am struck and delighted by the heavy involvement of metaphor and symbol, which serve a meditative purpose in Zen gardens. Not all Zen gardens are “dry” rock gardens — some include pools of water or tiny waterfalls — but especially in the dry garden, the use of symbolic representation reigns supreme. The structure of Japanese gardens is not intended to replicate nature with pure realism, but to create a self-contained, imaginary world where the components of the garden represent things beyond themselves. A rock or compilation of rocks can stand for a mountain, an island on the sea, or an outcropping on that sea; alternatively it could symbolize a stone in a river. A bushy or round plant can represent a mountain or a green hill, and even one tall, slender, or leafy plant can symbolize an entire forest. An assortment of plants close together can form the backdrop of a metaphorical landscape, creating the impression of distant hills and forests.Rock garden

In a karesansui, the water of the “sea,” “lake,” or “river” is represented by gravel, and can either seem like a still pool, or be stylistically raked or arranged to evoke thoughts of water’s movement. Gravel can easily represent a vast, active ocean; for this effect the garden’s size need not be large at all, since the world of the garden is not realistic reproduction but imagination. The scale of the garden’s interrelated contents is more instrumental in creating the desired impression than the size of the garden itself. In my own dry garden, the light gravel represents the sea, the flat stones are low islands on the sea, and the black hematite formations are taller “rocky outcroppings” standing above the water. The plants form a backdrop landscape. They could communicate mountains and forests; or perhaps their juxtaposition with the rocks could simply suggest a desert landscape, with no water imagined at all. These gardens have such a heavy use of imaginative representation in order to give the mind a dedicated, free space in which to think about the world-scape that the garden stands for. This is a meditative act that feeds the mind.

All of this leads me to think about a few ways that American Christian worship could, in my view, renew itself. In Japan the landscape is dotted with small shrines, to which individuals may go for a few minutes on their own time to light incense, say a prayer, meditate, or simply feel in communion with that which is beyond oneself. The Catholic and Orthodox areas of Europe are also rich with shrines, as is Latin America; many of these involve saints as avenues to the worship of God. Protestantism, however, which represents just under one-half of United States religious practice, is lacking this, since Protestant theology resists such small shrines either outdoors or in the private home. Therefore, what Christian shrines America does have tend to be Catholic (and Orthodox to a lesser extent, since there are far more American Catholics than American Orthodox). These are very attractive in a spiritual sense, and this is true whether such shrines are public or private. It is a personal, active, “anytime” experience to visit a shrine.

These are a few thoughts from one who takes delight from a rock garden, from lighting candles, and from being in a place and hearing nothing but the wind and the birds outside.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

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*For an excellent and readable resource on Zen gardens, see Zen Gardens by Erik Borja.

A Hijacked God

This past week, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the largest American Lutheran body and member of the Lutheran World Federation, rewrote its policy. Under the old policy, openly gay persons could be ordained to ministry, but could only serve if they remained celibate — if they refused all possibility of love in a committed relationship. After years of review, countless meetings of task forces and councils, and collected input from congregations across the country (including dissenting input), the new policy states that gay ministers will now be permitted the same rights to human companionship — to love — as heterosexuals, provided that their relationship is monogamous and committed. Their committed partners will be entitled to the same benefits as the spouses of married clergy because in most states, gay people do not have the right to marry. For those who would like to read the news release, here is a link: http://bit.ly/anmgiZ

The above is a contentious issue for many people, but basic human decency and humility — respect and love for other human beings as beings created in the image of God — should endure regardless of ideological and theological disputes. I think of this particularly after hearing not for the first time about the Westboro Baptist Church, an extremist church based in Topeka, which pickets (among other things) the funerals of our soldiers killed in the line of duty. This church is open about its hatred for gay people, and proclaims that God purposefully causes our soldiers to die as punishment for America’s “tolerance” of homosexuality. They appear at soldiers’ funerals (gay or not) holding signs like “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Semper Fi Fags,” “You’re Going to Hell,” “God is Your Enemy,” and “God Hates You.” For a recent article on a late soldier’s father’s efforts to fight them, click here: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/36449471/ns/us_news-crime_and_courts//

I will grant no further space to this “church.” They may be particularly radical, yet they are certainly not the only people who hold such signs or chant such slogans of hatred. But the issue here is not where one stands with regard to homosexuality or even gay people in ministry. The issue is how we conduct ourselves in relation to our fellow humans. I cannot help noticing that many people who quote the Bible the loudest are often using it to keep at bay some kind of “other” — mostly people who are different in some way from themselves. And the person doing the quoting is always so thoroughly convinced that God is on their side, and that God is against the other guy. It seems to me that this constitutes a hijacking of God. Why do people always quote the Bible to disenfranchise some other group (gays, women, African-Americans, Jews, etc.), but never themselves? How is it that the target is always somebody else and never oneself?

We so easily hijack God to glorify ourselves and make less of others. We can pick an issue, find a quote in the Bible, and then beat everybody over the head with it — oblivious to the amount of pain we may cause another human being — because after all, God is on our side and that justifies everything. Never mind that Jesus identified the greatest commandment as: “Love God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength,” and the second one as: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” If we are to take the Bible seriously, is it not imperative to give these words, identified as the greatest commandments, more than casual lip service? Nor can one claim that these are only New Testament ordinances. Jesus quoted those words from Deuteronomy, after all. Other words attributed to Jesus that are often passed over: “Judge not, lest you be judged,” and “The measure you give is the measure you get.”

If love is the greatest commandment, how does it serve love to denigrate and to inflict pain with our words upon fellow human beings, who are as much God’s children as ourselves? Does God love only some of us? Does God think only some of us worthy of being treated with respect and compassion? On the surface, few people of faith would agree with such statements. But when it comes to the crucible of practice, many of us behave as if the answer to those questions is yes. If we’re going to quote the Bible, we are then obliged to be aware of the Bible as a whole, not just whatever verse(s) we are currently inclined to use to make other people look bad. The Bible is not a weapon to be wielded against God’s other children. This is a dishonor.

I also notice that many people who quote Leviticus on the matter of homosexuality fail to quote Leviticus on anything else — like the prohibition on wearing clothes made from two different fabrics. You mean we can’t wear our cotton/polyester blends? You can also forget about shellfish, and don’t even think about those nice ham or bologna sandwiches for lunch. This is not to say anything against Leviticus per se or the practice of keeping kosher; I love the Hebrew Bible. But it is to say that we cannot divorce Leviticus’ one ordinance concerning homosexuality from the myriad ordinances among which it appears. Leviticus does nothing to single out its words on homosexuality as any more important than any of the other things that surround it. Yet most people who cite the verse on homosexuality neglect to observe most of the other rules in the same book.

A discussion of what may be the reasons for many of the Levitical ordinances would lead us astray for this particular post. But it is certainly true, and overtly stated in the text, that the Levitical regulations are concerned with ritual purity and the need at the time for the Israelites as a fledgling people to separate themselves from other Canaanites.

But one glaring fact remains. We are mortals. We are finite in our understanding of the universe and of God. We are the created, and cannot hope to penetrate the depths of the mind of the Creator. We may only fling our arms wide open to that Creator’s mercy and love. Lest I be judged by the same harsh measure that I might give to someone else — I prefer to err on the side of love, which is the only thing we know for certain pleases God.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

The Triduum

This year, I didn’t even realize it was Holy Thursday until just after noon, while I was standing in the sacristy of our church doing some routine clean-up tasks. What a moment to have such a revelation.

I serve in the Altar Guild of our church, which means every 7 weeks or so it’s my turn to wash and iron the Communion linens and return them (and, if I’m unlucky according to the liturgical calendar, change the altar paraments). So I was standing there in the sacristy and I heard, coming through the hallway and the walls, the pastor’s voice leading as the congregants began to chant a certain part of the liturgy. Suddenly I thought: “My God, this is Holy Thursday and I didn’t even think of it till now.”

I used to be aware of every minute — every second — of Holy Week. Just a few years ago, forgetting any of the Triduum days was about as likely for me as suddenly being crowned Olympic champion in curling. Oh, of course I had known it was Holy Thursday somewhere in my brain, just as I had expected the Triduum the entire week and its culmination in Easter. But that morning, I had been preoccupied with preparing pizza chena: a traditional Italian Easter dish. At my grandmother’s recent passing, I determined that the tradition would not die, and that I would begin making it, for the first time this Easter. It is an arduous recipe and was occupying most of my finite brain. But I acknowledged that there was another reason one of the three holiest days in the Christian calendar did not actively occur to me until I heard the service listing in through the walls.

The truth was I hadn’t been going to church a lot over the last year. Actually, since the birth of our wonderful daughter 3 years ago, we had been going less and less. Finding that our lives, with which we were very happy and in which we would not change a thing, also made us….tired! Not unmanageably so; just enough not to have the motivation. But it wasn’t just a question of motivation. It was also a question of mental space. With so much going on in our lives that we have to track — not bad things necessarily, just a lot of things — we find the downtime together on weekends to be almost sacred. Especially for my husband, who works not only a full time job but also a difficult night class every semester. And maybe we were too lazy to manage getting a small child to (and through) church every week. We still count ourselves steadfastly Christian. Liberal Christians yes, Christians always interested in wisdom from other religions — but still stalwart ones. We hadn’t become any less spiritual about our religion. We just didn’t go to church as much anymore, even though we had and have no intention of giving church up for good. Had we joined the ranks of those who are religious yet for whatever reason don’t go to services very often? Possibly, for now. But not forever, I can’t help feeling.

So, I had gone to church on Palm Sunday, was actively anticipating Easter, and Holy Thursday still snuck up on me. Whatever that means, as I stood there in that sacristy listening to the beautiful strains of the liturgy, I felt both like an outsider for having “forgotten” and yet, in my deeply individualistic way, also a profound sense of belonging. Belonging to this faith that celebrates an unfathomably sacred Triduum each year: Maundy/Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday culminating in Easter. These three days are so sacred because we commemorate a Creator God who took our own form on Earth in the most mindblowing act of empathy and identification that anyone can imagine. Even without the Crucifixion, just the act of that God assuming human form — in some mystifying emptying of Godself — is the ultimate act both of identification with human beings and sanctification of human beings.

In thinking of this, I also thought those thoughts that many people of faith find uncomfortable and try to avoid. This uncomfortable avoidance is natural, and I often find myself doing it, though less so since reading Paul Tillich’s The Dynamics of Faith. Tillich, one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, contended that questioning, confused, or even doubting thoughts are not signs of weak or no faith, but are in fact integral to the nature of faith itself, which is dynamic by nature and is “the state of ultimate concern.” As a Hebrew Bible scholar, I think automatically of Jacob wrestling with the angel of the Lord in Genesis. It was only after that all-night wrestling match that God’s messenger blessed Jacob and changed his name to Israel.

The unsettling thoughts, of course, revolved mostly around suffering. Jesus’ suffering. Why? To become fully human, including to experience suffering, in the ultimate demonstration of the Creator’s solidarity with the created? To act in keeping with the biblical tradition, which states that restitution for sin is accomplished through deliberately, voluntarily sacrificing something? So God decided to sacrifice Godself — once and for all — in human form, for humans? I thought of the old debate, dating to the beginning of Christianity: was Jesus fully God or was he like God? I feel that if the Christian story is true, Jesus would have to be truly God in human manifestation for the Crucifixion to make any sense at all — it would have to be God assuming that suffering on Godself, not simply a man handed over to torture. How could that, indeed, accomplish anything? Such a cosmic act requires a divine participant. God deciding to suffer alongside humans, and thus to redeem them in the most magisterial way possible, I can appreciate and be grateful for. But the question inevitably tied to it is the question every faith has probed in every time: why suffering in the first place? No answer, many theories. It is, in the truest sense, a Mystery. Just as the nature of the Universe itself is a Mystery.

All this I pondered as I stood there in that sacristy. Now, the pizza chena is finished and sitting in the fridge, and I am home with my daughter. Not long ago, I actively realized it is Good Friday. Tonight, I will take some time to think about the impenetrable mystery of a God who willingly became a human.

© Elizabeth L. Keck 2010