Monday, January 30, 2006

Demons: Reaction to a Modern Parable

Yesterday, my church presented for the first time a sermon which actually offended me. After more than two years of sermons which were either spot-on what I needed to hear, or pleasant, or thought-provoking, I didn’t think they’d ever offend me, but they finally did.

The way we do things without a full-time rector is that the sermon duty alternates between three women: the supply priest, the parish coordinator, and a woman who is in the process of becoming ordained. Yesterday was the parish coordinator’s turn.

Her sermon was based around a short story about a woman who is “restless and displeased” with her life, who goes to consult a gypsy fortuneteller to see if she can figure out what’s wrong. The gypsy tells the woman that she is possessed by seven demons, and gives the demons names such as “I Will Not Die,” “Things Will Get Better,” “Someday Love Will Come,” and “If Only This, Then That.” Basically, all of the usual dissatisfactions and insecurities a modern woman might have with her life.

I take exception to this story for two reasons.

The first is that to portray these insecurities as demons is unusually facile. The way the story was written, they come from outside entities. This is a dangerous doctrine, to think of the unwanted facets of the personality as demons or evil spirits. It seems something that could very easily be used to put off personal responsibility or the need to shape our personalities ourselves. “Well, I can’t help being this way. It’s the demon’s fault!”

The second is the inherent assumption that such restlessness is bad. I have found that through restlessness comes creativity and a desire to make my life better. Restlessness impelled me to action at times when I might otherwise have sat passively and let my life crumble around me. God helps those who help themselves, as they say. And who’s to say that a restlessness of that sort is not in itself a message from the Spirit, trying to get through and tell us that we have something we need to be doing?

Surrendering to the will of God, as the story suggested, does not alleviate restlessness. It may direct it and give it purpose, but the restlessness will ever be there, pulsing and preparing the person to act.

Friday, January 20, 2006

In-Your-Face Evangelism

Last week, I had a rather unfortunate encounter with a fundamentalist Bible literalist at work.

This lady, whom we shall call B, is in the same department as I am—higher ranking, but not a boss of mine. She was offering me a very small side job typing up a sheet her church’s Bible study group could use to mark off the Bible chapters they have read. Easy enough. My boss, whom we shall call C, was also there. Once I agreed to do the typing, B and C got to talking about the Bible study group some people run here at work during lunchtime on certain days, and B asked if I’d be interested in attending.

I asked for more details, and she said they were doing a study of Revelation using a study guide written by Ann Graham, Billy Graham’s daughter. I immediately started to feel uncomfortable. Wasn’t Ann Graham one of those who, after 9/11, went on TV and said that the attacks were a divine punishment because America contains gay people? But I was polite. “Well, I’ve probably got a more liberal interpretation of the Bible than you would be using, but it’s always good to hear different ideas…” I began.

B cut me off and started telling me there was nothing to interpret, because the Bible was God’s Divine Word ™ and it simply was as written.

I tried to explain that in my church, we don’t take such a literal interpretation of Scripture. It was inspired by God, to be sure—at least the parts which aren’t forgeries inserted by people working for their own agendas. But it was written by humans. It was translated by humans. It has been for centuries interpreted by humans trying to understand what the people of another time and place were attempting to say, trying to understand the nuances of languages they did not speak as natives. To say that there have been no errors in that process over the years strikes me as astonishingly naïve. (I didn’t tell B that part.)

B kept interrupting and talking over me. C, bless her, tried to make B keep quiet so I could finish what I was saying, but it wasn’t working. Finally I explained the very core of my faith, my certainty that God is a God of mercy and justice both. Suppose there is a Muslim man who is good, I said. He loves his family, gives alms to the poor, worships Allah as best he can. He does as he was taught. I can not bring myself to believe that he will be damned, because he had no way of knowing God except what he was taught. God’s message has been so garbled by humans over so many years. I believe that when we die, we will meet God, and all that misunderstanding will be lifted away. We will then be given a chance to decide whether we accept that Truth or not.

B was having none of it. “Well,” she said dismissively, “it says in the Bible that everyone who doesn’t follow Jesus will be damned. Sometime I’ll talk to you without C around. I’ll bring you around to my thinking!”

Hmm, how much more condescending could she be? I was as polite and restrained as I was because C was there. If she’s not around, the full theological onslaught is going to be released. The gloves will come off, as they say in hockey.

It was really a very stressful encounter, and I felt full of adrenaline afterwards. There was a definite fight-or-flight response going on. I couldn’t very well fly, so I fought. As politely as I could, with the only words I knew, but I fought for what I believe to be true.

I don’t believe this style of evangelism has any place in a life of faith. Nowhere in the entire Bible did Jesus tell the disciples to be disrespectful. None of the writers of the Epistles said to do any such thing. My faith is to be shown in the way I live my life, however imperfectly I manage to do that. It has nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not I can shout louder than the person who’s disagreeing with me.

Just because someone can interrupt and talk over me, it doesn’t make them right. It just makes them rude.

Thursday, January 12, 2006


I remember having... not an argument, exactly, but certainly a spirited discussion with one of my cousins when the Barenaked Ladies song "It's All Been Done" came out. I insisted it was about reincarnation and souls encountering each other through successive lives, even though done comically. She said there was no way; it was just silliness.

I actually believe in reincarnation. I know that's not a common Christian belief (in fact it's considered thoroughly heretical by some), but it seems too right an idea for me to let go of.

The early church did teach a doctrine of reincarnation. Witness the words of Bishop Gregory of Nyssa, "'It is absolutely necessary that the soul shall be healed and purified, and if it doesn't take place in one life on earth, it must be accomplished in future earthly lives." Even St. Augustine in his Confessions mused on the possibilities of multiple lives. "Did my infancy succeed another age of mine that dies before it? Was it that which I spent within my mother's womb? . . . And what before that life again, O God of my joy, was I anywhere or in any body?" Certain sects of Christians, especially Gnostics, Manicheans, and Cathars, taught that reincarnation was fact, but the idea was declared heretical by the mainstream church at the Council of Constantinople in the year 533.

The main Christian objection to reincarnation is that it seems to indicate that Christ's gift of salvation and grace is not enough, if multiple lives are required to attain perfection. However, within the Gospels, Jesus himself refers to John the Baptist as the reincarnation of Elijah. "For all the prophets and the law have prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who was to come." (Matthew 11:13-14.) See also Matthew 17:10-13 and Mark 9:9-13.

The Apostle Paul, before his conversion on the road to Damascus, was a Pharisee. The Pharisaic sect of Judaism taught a form of reincarnation, that the souls of the wicked were punished after death, but the souls of the righteous were "removed into other bodies" and had the power to revive and live again. Paul gives us a tantalizing hint at the possibility of reincarnation in his first letter to the Corinthians. "Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed." (1 Cor. 15:51.)

I believe in reincarnation because I believe that one of the responses a soul makes upon receiving the gift of grace is the desire to know God. With very few and rare exceptions, though, this can not be done directly while we are embodied. So we learn about God by learning about the world and people around us. We come to understand God and God's love, in our limited way, by understanding and loving others.

It would be a rare soul that could reach even a partial understanding of life and its mysteries in one lifetime. So I believe that reincarnation is itself a gift of grace. It does not detract from salvation, but is a part of it. It is the gift of a loving Creator that our souls are given as many opportunities as we need to learn what we need to know to become part of that love and rejoin with God in the Source of All.

Friday, January 06, 2006

With apologies to CS Lewis, Wormwood, and Screwtape

Dear Fred and Pat,

Well, I must say, I am highly impressed! By turning those who would be my Enemy’s followers towards a hateful parody of what He actually taught, you’ve been driving others away from His faith in record numbers! I admit I was skeptical of this plan at first; after all, we did quite well with the old ways of horror and abomination. But your plan has been working more brilliantly than I ever could have imagined! I will make sure that you get a bonus this month. Well done, sirs!


Epiphany: "Guide us to thy perfect light"

Why yes, this one IS an article I wrote for the church newsletter. I'm all about intellectual recycling. ;-) So in honor of Epiphany, the Feast of the Wise Men, here you go.


When the wise men had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. – Matthew 2:9-11

In those ancient days when Jesus was born, astrology was not the minor amusement it has become now. It wasn’t some vague prediction about a person’s day, read idly from the morning news, meant to apply to every single person born within the period ruled by a particular constellation. Rather it was a science of great precision and an art of great significance. And in those days, the scholars of the east had raised astrology to previously unknown levels of importance and exactness. The movements of the stars were seen as signs and portents of the events on the earth below.

So imagine the surprise of these learned scholars, these wise men of the east, when the great star of the nativity appeared to their west. To a civilization such as these men came from—Persia, maybe, or India—the lands to the west were considered barbaric. Judea was simply a backwater province of Rome. In modern terms, it would be as if some New York intellectuals suddenly received a sign that the savior of the world had been born in some small town in Alabama or West Virginia: more than a little difficult to believe!

Yet in the belief of the wise men, the stars did not and could not lie. The greatest of kings had been born, according to all the portents, and his star lay in the west. So they set out, traveling far from home on a cold road full of dangers, following wisdom’s pure light in the form of that star.

We know nothing about these men, really; we don’t know how many of them there were, from what land they came, or truly even when they reached Jesus. Popular imagery has them appearing twelve days after the miraculous birth, yet some scholars believe they may not have reached Judea until Jesus was two years old. I find myself wondering if, with all their wisdom and knowledge, they truly understood the type of king they sought.

Surely they must have realized that this was no ordinary king through simple observation; neither a stable nor a carpenter’s home are the sort of place one expects to find a young king. I can imagine them standing outside the shabby building, arguing, checking their maps and star charts: “It’s right here, I tell you!” “But this can’t be it!” “We should have asked directions at Jericho!”

But did they think as so many of the Jews thought later, that Jesus would be the one to rise up and lead a defeat against the Romans, an earthly Messiah who would become an earthly king? Or did they, with the star’s light guiding them, realize that the kingdom this child would rule would be instead a heavenly one? When they reached the end of the road and knelt in homage before the child, surely they must have realized that he was not what they had expected.

So it may be for all of us who follow the star’s road; we know that our king waits for us at the end and that the Holy Spirit guides our journey. Yet while we are limited by our human perspectives, we can never completely understand that perfect love which we will find when we reach the end. Still we go on, calling out to others to see the star and join us on the road, praying that the light of God’s star will illumine us all with wisdom enough to accept that love as the truth and gift it is.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

"Left Behind"

I really hate these books.

It’s an interesting premise, to be sure. The Left Behind books by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye could have been an adventure tale about living in the End Times. To an extent, they do fill this role, but Jenkins and LaHaye have done much to indicate that they believe the End Times are NOW and they believe the Rapture is going to happen any minute. (Personally, I think they’re very poorly written, but then again, Jenkins and LaHaye get interviewed on the History Channel and are laughing all the way to the bank while I’m putting my ideas out via blog, so what do I know? I’ll leave the literary critiquing for another time.)

For those who aren’t familiar, the Left Behind series tells the story of those who are left on Earth after Christ “Raptures” all the true believers into heaven. They go through all kinds of tribulations, become true believers, battle the Antichrist, and eventually reunite with their loved ones in heaven once Jesus comes and defeats the Antichrist.

I have many reasons for hating these books, even aside from their dubious literary quality.

The authors draw heavily upon the Revelation of John for their imagery, and I can't say I blame them. If you want to scare people, there are some terrifying images to work with in here, and I certainly don't envy John his nightmares! The fearful focus, of course, is on the Beast, the anti-Christ whose number is 666. Well, there's a problem here. Many Bible scholars now believe that John was writing a warning to the people of his own time. The Beast of such evil was the Roman Emperor Domitian, who was the first Roman Emperor to persecute Christians in earnest. The number 666? Well, some early manuscripts actually show it as 616.

The written Hebrew of the first century used a form of numerology as a way of disguising the meaning, and in that code, 616 gives us "Caesar Nero." (666, by the way, gives us "Caesar Neron," which was the Greek version of the Emperor's name.) Yes, I know I said above that it was Emperor Domitian. But Domitian, because of his insane cruelty, was said by many to be Nero reborn. (Revelation also mentions the death and rebirth of the Beast, by the way.)

Now, I realize there are as many interpretations of Revelation as there are people who have read it, but I do believe that the Left Behind authors failed to take the context of the writing into account. At the end of the first century, commonly accepted as the date of the writing of Revelation, an uprising in Jerusalem had been put down violently by the Romans. The Temple had been destroyed, and the Jews and Christians (and at that time, most Christians were also Jews) had been scattered and forced to flee. In times of great turmoil (including our own) it is common enough for writers to use an apocalyptic style to call attention to the points they wish to make. John of Patmos wrote as a church leader, to followers of that infant church of the first century, not to us.

Even more than the historical/theological flaws I see in the Left Behind interpretation of the Bible, I hate its exclusionistic tendencies. Some people seem to take a great amount of smug satisfaction in the fact that they have an "in" with God; that once the Rapture comes, they're going to be airlifted to safety while the rest of us sinners are stuck down here going through the Tribulation. It makes people feel safe and secure, with no need to question or examine their beliefs, while they sit and bite their thumbs at the rest of us.

Granted, most of those who believe in this more literal interpretation of Revelation do genuinely want to bring the rest of us into the fold so that we may be Raptured as well, once the time comes, but the very idea of the Rapture creates such an "us and them" mentality that I have a lot of trouble reconciling it with what I do understand of the contents of the Bible. Witness Paul's words to the Galatians: There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Even more telling is the story of Jesus and the Gentile woman, as told in Matthew's Gospel. Jesus then left Galilee and went north to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Gentile woman who lived there came to him, pleading, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! For my daughter has a demon in her, and it is severely tormenting her." But Jesus gave her no reply--not even a word.
Then his disciples urged him to send her away. "Tell her to leave," they said. "She is bothering us with all her begging."
Then he said to the woman, "I was sent only to help the people of Israel--God's lost sheep--not the Gentiles."
But she came and worshiped him and pleaded again, "Lord, help me!"
"It isn't right to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs," he said.
"Yes, Lord," she replied, "but even dogs are permitted to eat crumbs that fall beneath their master's table."
"Woman," Jesus said to her, "your faith is great. Your request is granted." And her daughter was instantly healed.

To me, this story is about Jesus showing the disciples the way their ministry will eventually take, that faith and the path to God will be open to all people.

For the record, I don't believe that we are living in the End Times.

I do believe that these are times of great turmoil and trouble. But in all of recorded history, when has humanity not lived in times of turmoil and trouble?

In Matthew, we are told to be ready, for we know not when the hour will come: Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. This, I believe, refers not to a literal coming of the Son of Man, but to each person's moment of death. No one can pinpoint the moment they will die, and anything could happen at any moment to cause it. Keep ready and be ready to meet God, this passage is saying, for someday you will die, and then you will meet God. It is another way to tell us that our treasures are best found not on earth, but in heaven.


This is where you get to read my ramblings about theology. I will admit right here, I'm not a trained theologian, and I'm going off a lot of instinct and observation. But it's my blog, so I can do that, right?

I hope that some of the things I post here will make my readers think, and some will engender discussion. In terms of that, I ask that you keep the discussions respectful. Comments which contain insults to another person's beliefs will be deleted. I do understand that theology and religion can get people mightily heated up, and that's okay. I simply ask that discussions be approached respectfully and with reason.

What you will see here are steps on my spiritual journey, the small baby steps that I hope will eventually lead me where I am supposed to go, and my search for clarity as I seek to learn how to listen for the Spirit.

May you all be blessed in your own journeys, and may these steps we take together be also a blessing.